Memories of Teufelsberg, Berlin

Teufelsberg, Berlin, was the site of an NSA listening post during the Cold War. The facility, known as T-Berg or simply the Hill, was shared by the Americans and the Brits who both conducted a variety of intelligence gathering activities 60 miles behind the Iron Curtain. As I've noted here a number of times, I worked there for three years during the early 1980s as a Russian linguist in the U.S. Army. 

I have a picture of the site that was taken by Bob Haake, my stepfather, in February of 1985. He and my mother were in Berlin, and we drove out to the Grunewald one very cold afternoon for a look around. Although taking pictures of the facility was officially forbidden, as I recall, Bob decided he'd take a quick snapshot in spite of the prohibition. I'm glad he did. I treasure the picture, which is attached to the bottom of this blog entry. 

I searched the internet for other images of Teufelsberg yesterday. It's unfortunate, in my view, that most of the pictures out there are of the vandalized remains of the facility. The exterior shots of the site during its years of operation are vastly outnumbered by pictures of it in its current dilapidated state. And the only shots of the interior, quite understandably, are ones taken years after the site was closed, the machines were turned off, and the lights were turned out. I've never seen a picture of any part of the interior when the site was operational; for obvious reasons, that makes sense.  

While I'm certain that T-Berg's current state is of cultural interest, and that those who visit the site now consider the extensive graffiti and street art of some significance, I honestly find contemporary images of it to be depressing. Look, I know the place isn't Pearl Harbor or Gettysburg, but it was a vital operational site in the heart of the DDR for at least three decades during the Cold War. And the men and women who worked there played a key role in containing the Soviet and Warsaw Pact threat to the West. To allow the site to fall into such disrepair, to allow vandals to trash the place, and artists to use it as their personal canvas strikes me as careless at best and disrespectful at worst. 

TBerg 1985.jpg

Two Spies; One Author

A while back I undertook to write The Holy Lance, a thriller about Russia. My four Nick Temple Files are all set during the Cold War, but this new book had to be set in the 21st century. The story at the heart of my The Holy Lance revolves around a number of post-Cold War events, such as the discovery of the remains of Nicholas II and his family. So, I needed a new spy.

Nick Temple was born in 1917, or so it states in one of the early Nick Temple Files. It is unlikely that he would have lived into the 21st century. At a minimum, since he would have been 83 in 2000, he certainly would not have been traversing the globe, chasing down clues leading to a Tsarist plot to take over post-Soviet Russia. And I wasn't willing to go the route of the Bond movie franchise of simply ignoring the established age of my lead character and expecting the audience to do the same (even though the movie version of that franchise has obviously had phenomenal, continued success doing just that). Thus, bringing Chet Brinker to life for a 21st century thriller was abundantly necessary.

As I developed Brinker's character, I tried to be conscious of creating someone who wasn't simply a 21st century version of Nick Temple. Both Brinker and Temple tend to be outsiders willing to buck the system, so to speak. Okay, with that cliche out of the way, their characters begin to diverge. I chose 1917 as Nick Temple's birth year because that's the year John F. Kennedy was born. And in a sense, Temple is cut from the same cloth as men like Kennedy, at least emotionally and ideologically. That birth year also means he was 22 when World War II started in Europe and 24 when Pearl Harbor was bombed. So when the war started, his persona was already well-formed. He wasn't some 18-year old kid joining the military because it was the right thing to do. He was a young man who'd come of age during the Great Depression, and whose mettle was about to be tested in the worst conflagration the world has ever known. He survived, and even thrived. Nick's views on the world, women, and booze were all formed at a time when being anything other than ramrod straight was at least unorthodox, and at worst personally dangerous. The country's confidence at the end of World War II was shaken by the global challenge of Communism in the late 1940s and into the 1950s. And Nick Temple, a hardened realist, understood the Cold War conflict on both the micro and macro levels. 

Brinker's backstory is still emerging, and may be further fleshed out in a prequel. The basics of that story reveal he came of age in an era that saw sharp questions about the power and ability of the U.S. to have its way in the world. But old habits, individual and institutional, die hard, and a deep cover clandestine operation gone bad is the most recent formative event in Brinker's career and life. He, like Nick Temple, is a lifer. Unlike Temple, Chet Brinker has virtually no interests, no life, and no social connections outside of the CIA and the world of espionage. There's more than a bit of the nerd about him. And when we meet him in The Holy Lancehis recent long-term downgrade to a document analyst has him a step behind, his timing a bit off, and his skills more than a little rusty. In spite of the hit his career has taken, he never loses his self-deprecating sense of humor, and even comes off at times as less than serious, another point of divergence between Brinker and Temple. That being said, there can be no question about Brinker's courage under fire, a trait that gets tested more than once in The Holy Lance, nor can there be any doubt about his determination to do what it takes when the future of his country, and even the world, may be at stake. Both of those are characteristics that he shares with his fictional predecessor, Nick Temple.

It probably goes without saying that I am exceedingly fond of both of these spies. It's a wonderful thing to be an author and have the freedom to create the sort of characters you'd like to believe are, in reality, tackling with grace, good humor, and great skill some of the toughest assignments of this or any age.  

The Holy Lance is Up and Selling

After Little Acorn Publishers, the London outfit that first published The Holy Lance, went out of the publishing business, I left the book alone. It was delisted and marked "not currently available" on Amazon and elsewhere. As noted in my previous post, I thought I was done with writing and promoting, so I did nothing. My recent recommitment to writing and to what I've written included getting the book back in print and making it once again available. I chose to publish it myself via Amazon's CreateSpace. The process is fairly painless, and remarkably quick. As part of that process I designed a new cover, and rewrote the back cover description. Within minutes of my approving the proof, the Amazon listing went active. Both the paperback and Kindle versions are now available, and, I'm pleased to say, a sale has already been recorded! Potential readers can check it out by using the "Look Inside" feature on the listing, and Kindle Unlimited members can download it for free. If you're so inclined, click here to check out the most recent version of my 21st century thriller, The Holy Lance. And if you like what you read, don't forget to tell 100,000 of your closest friends. 

Writing as Addiction

Like many young people, when I was about 18 I took up smoking. I smoked about a pack a day for nearly five years. Conscious of the physical toll my habit was taking, I quit when I joined the Army. I fell off the wagon a couple of times, and ultimately it took a full year of not smoking at all before I stopped thinking, "Man, I could really use a cigarette." A full year. Addictions are rough, and even that mild smoking addiction and my struggle to break free from it should have told me something. 

Well, a few months back I threw in the writing towel. No more writing. No more promoting books. No more aggravation, disappointment, grief, and all the other crap that comes with the creative process. I told myself that I was done, that eight books is enough, and that whatever unfinished works were in the pipeline, including two emerging novels, would have to finish themselves because I was done. And I actually got out of the habits I'd developed of writing, editing, researching, and promoting. I even shut down my twitter account, stepped away from the works in progress, and tried to convince myself that an important part of my life for more than a quarter of a century was at a welcome end. And after a few weeks of mild withdrawal, I began to feel at ease with my decision. A sort of serenity ensued . . . at least temporarily. Then, in February I started to ease back into some of those old habits. A conversation here, an editing session there, and next thing I know, I'd fallen off the wagon, and that part of me that I like to think of as my creative side was demanding my attention in the same manner that it had for much of my life. At least my advancing years seem to have leveled out the mercurial temperament typical of my earlier bouts with this unending addiction, and for that I am grateful. As for the rest of it, the torture continues. 

Mark Valley's Podcast Interview

Mark Valley is putting together a fascinating podcast focused on the "world of domestic and international intrigue as we make sense of Cold War Berlin, where [he] was stationed in the late 80s and surrounded by civilians, soldiers, spies and informants." Mark contacted me via Twitter over a year ago about the Nick Temple Files. We've had a number of conversations since then most of which have been focused on the factual and fictional worlds of espionage and intelligence in Cold War Berlin. Last Tuesday, Mark interviewed me via Skype for his podcast, The Live Drop, which is currently in preproduction. We had a wide-ranging conversation about Berlin, the Cold War, intelligence operations, and the process of writing. I'll admit to being nervous about the whole deal at the beginning, but Mark's informal and friendly style, mixed with his own depth of knowledge and experience, quickly put me at ease, and the result was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I'm looking forward to seeing the finished product and the other episodes he's currently producing. His list of guests is impressive and eclectic within the general ambit of Cold War espionage. As a result, The Live Drop, when all is said and done, will be an informative and entertaining addition to the fascinating body of Cold War knowledge. 

A Berlin New Year's Eve

I turned 60 this year, so it should come as no surprise that I've had the pleasure of living through a number of memorable New Year's Eves. The most memorable among them is the one I experienced in Berlin on December 31st, 1985. 

My wife and I were both Russian linguists in the Army, and we worked a swing shift that day on Teufelsberg, ("the hill"), keeping tabs on the Soviets as usual. Our routine at the end of the shift, which ended around 11:00 p.m. as I recall, was to take the trick bus down the hill to the bus stop at Truman Plaza and then catch a Berlin city bus to our apartment on Albrechstrasse in Steglitz. However, once we got off the bus at Truman Plaza that night it became clear that the city busses weren't running. Seems that was standard for Berlin on New Year's Eve, but it was news to us at that moment. Once we figured it out, we hailed a taxi and headed for home.

The taxi ride was wild. The New Year's Eve custom in Berlin at the time (still?) was to light up the nightwith fireworks. And I mean light up every square inch of the night. Besides the stuff going straight up, besides the stuff arcing over the city's buildings and streets, besides the stuff whirring, whizzing, and exploding on the ground, Berliners were firing Roman candles and bottle rockets directly at each other across the city's streets. On the way home, our cab got hit more times than I can remember by flying, sparkling, exploding things, all of which were harmless so long as we stayed in the car. Albrechtstrasse was itself a gauntlet in a what seemed like a free fire zone! And it was all great fun. 

When we got home, we popped open a bottle of Jahrgang Sekt, headed out to the balcony of our sixth floor apartment, filled our champagne flutes, iced the bottle in some recent snow, sat back, sipped the Sekt, and watched the rest of the show. It was a helluva show with the occasional firework flying a little too close for comfort directly overhead or exploding against our building mere meters away. To this day, I remember it as number one among all of the New Year's celebrations I've witnessed. Take my word for it, Berliners know how to throw a party.   

Cliff Thompson: A Nick Temple Files Original

Cliff Thompson is a recurring character in the Nick Temple Files. I wanted to create a spy with the freedom of movement that a CIA agent would not have, so I made him a freelancer. In The Heraklion Gambit, I sketched out his backstory in a handful of paragraphs. The result, satisfactory from my point of view, is a man living in the shadows, a man who any day might be terminated by any number of governments, a man made for the deadly game of espionage at the heart of the Cold War. I love the guy. Here, then, is his brief backstory.

"Cliff Thompson zealously guards his independence from the routines of bureaucracy. He is almost pathologically averse to anything having the slightest appearance of government formality. Nick is certain that if he ever told Thompson he’d have to drop by the office to get paid that Thompson would tell him to shove it and he’d never hear from him again. Nick’s guess is that Thompson had more than his share of bureaucracy during his time in the military and his stint in the OSS. It took Nick the better part of a year to convince Thompson to provide coherent reports that weren’t simply meandering narratives. The results have been outstanding as Thompson has one of the clearest minds Nick has ever encountered in a freelancer.

"Thompson is a strange contradiction. His time in the military was so distasteful – for reasons he won’t discuss – that he likes to shove it to the U.S. government any time he can. For instance, he does whatever he can to avoid paying taxes; Nick has to pay him in cash that is entered simply as a “development” expense on the debit side of the office’s ledger. Thompson is constantly changing his address to thwart attempts to track him down to get him to pay alimony to his less-than-deserving wife. (Somehow, in spite of being pregnant and giving birth to a child towards the tail end of her husband’s 24-month continuous absence during World War II, she and her lawyer were able to convince a judge to stick it to Cliff Thompson.) He ignores court orders, subpoenas, IRS threats, and any static from a government that seems less than grateful for his years of sacrifice and service.  

"However, he’s convinced that the Soviets are a bigger menace than his own government. He doesn’t worry so much about the possibility of World War III, or the collapse of representative democracy at the hands of crazed communists. His worry is simple: if the Soviets ever control the country he lives in, he has no doubt that their government will be a much bigger pain in the ass than the American government is. So he’s got a dog in the hunt, as he likes to say, and he spends way too many of his waking hours figuring out how to personally torment anyone who has any connection to Moscow’s rulers. Much to his delight, if Thompson could ever be said to experience such an emotion, Berlin is the perfect place for him; so long as he stays within the city’s limits he can thumb his nose at America’s stateside authorities, and continue his life’s work of “fucking with Ivan” as he likes to say. All of which makes Cliff Thompson a pain in Nick Temple’s ass. Nick would have him jailed in a New York minute if it weren’t for the constant flow of actionable intel that Thompson has produced year after year." 

America Remakes itself in Russia's Image

Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech in May of 1946 at Fulton, Missouri, is often seen as the unofficial beginning of the Cold War. The World War II alliance between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies quickly deteriorated after the defeat of fascism, and by early 1946 that alliance had been replaced by open hostility and suspicion. The symbolic end of the Cold War would come 43 years later when the Berlin Wall became  nothing more than a porous anachronism, a broken symbol of a failed, oppressive system. The Soviets and their Eastern Bloc cronies were ousted, and good riddance.

The former states of the Warsaw Pact and the constituent republics of the former Soviet Union would find their own way out of the abusive relationship they'd endured for more than  four decades. And Russia would find itself increasingly irrelevant in the political and power landscape of the post Cold War era. That is until 2000, when Vladimir Putin became Russia's president. 

Seventeen years later It is clear that Russia has been actively working for years to undermine democratic institutions in those countries seen previously, and once again, as its international rivals. Furthermore, those efforts are ongoing and to date successful. How did a failing state with severely diminished political and economic influence manage such a turnaround?

One lesson the Russians learned from the Cold War is that it cannot outspend the West in either a conventional or nuclear arms race. Its economy, and previously the economy of the Soviet Union, is simply not large enough to support such an effort. It has therefore turned to other means to obtain a political and economic position its leadership believes is its natural due. In short, they learned the lesson of asymmetrical warfare, the sort of warfare waged against the Soviet Union by some of those it sought to dominate such as the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Russia, rather than engaging in another arms race or embarking on fruitless invasions as its predecessor did, has found a far more economically efficient means of achieving its global aims: Russia has successfully weaponized the internet.

The current Russian internal governing model is one characterized by autocratic power used to enrich a thin layer of oligarchs, to foment aggressive nationalism, and to suppress meaningful dissent. In other words, same old, same old. The Russian foreign policy model is one characterized by using the cost-effective tools of the internet to replicate its internal model abroad. Russia's broad international strategy is actually a remake of the aims of the former Soviet Union, i.e., to transform the world's political and economic institutions into ones reflecting  Russia's, or stated another way, to remake the world in its own image. Sound familiar? Yep . . . same old, same old.

We spent trillions of dollars and too many lives resisting the Soviet effort for more than four decades. However, remarkably, America's current political leadership in both the White House and Congress is all in with the Russians. The evidence is clear. The ongoing revelations about Russia's actions leading up to the 2016 election, and the deep ties current administration officials have to Russia and, more importantly, have been cultivating with Russia for years, are unmistakable signs of a fellow traveler finding common ground with a despot. Furthermore, statements and actions from the highest levels of the Trump administration give aid and comfort to white supremacists while increasing the danger to those who are different, those who dissent, and those who report. The analog to Russia's domestic politics is undeniable. As to Congress, the recent "tax reform" bills approved by the House and the Senate guarantee the further concentration of power and capital into the hands of a select few (read "oligarchs" here) to the further deprivation of the vast majority (read "masses" here). Further concentration and deprivation are unquestionably central aims of the men and women who are supposed to represent the interests of all Americans.

The only reasonable conclusion from the above is that Russia's efforts to manipulate American democratic institutions are bearing fruit as the United States remakes itself in Russia's image, a remarkable turn of events since the Cold War's dramatic end 30 years ago. If nothing else, perhaps the American experience can be a cautionary tale for the rest of the world.  

A Nick Temple Christmas

Since the Christmas season is officially here it's time for the annual reposting of what I've come to call "A Nick Temple Christmas." Here, then, is the original post with my explanatory notes as an introduction:

I created the Nick Temple character when I was working as an Russian linguist/intercept op at Field Station Berlin during the early 1980s. Our shifts, especially "mids" (what others would call "the graveyard shift"), were at times quiet affairs with little to do. Most of the Soviet Army was likely sleeping or passed out. During those quiet moments I created Nick Temple, one paragraph at a time. The character at the time was more a parody of espionage novel heroes than anything else, and the snippets were fun to write. Our local area network at the Field Station's intercept site on Teufelsberg allowed me to post the paragraphs for all to see. The men and women of Field Station Berlin thus became the first to be introduced to Nick Temple. The selection below is from Christmas of 1985. It's a favorite, so I repost it from time to time. It's raw and overdone, and I hope you like it.

"Nick froze in place. Not a muscle of his finely tuned body twitched. There was some sort of noise coming from the top of the building. 'A clumsy intruder,' Nick thought to himself. There had to be more than one of them. Nick checked to make certain that the P-38 hidden under his smoking jacket was fully loaded. He climbed the first flight of stairs of his luxurious Chevy Chase home with the swiftness and ease that came with years of constant training. He walked undetected to the emergency exit that led out to the helipad that he'd had installed on the roof at the president's request. 

"When he reached the snow covered roof he saw what he was up against. There were eight of them. With a quick reload he could take them out before they knew what had hit them. He crouched low behind the central air conditioning intake duct and waited for his moment.

"He leaped out, firing with his right hand, diving to his left. The clip was empty and six of them were dead. He reloaded in less than two seconds and he came up firing. Two more rounds was all it took.

"Nick walked over to the scene of death. He recognized them from the file: Dasher, Dancer, Donner, Blitzen, Comet, Cupid, Prancer, Vixen. One was missing. . . "  

The Flemish Coil on Kindle, and other Nick Temple File News

After mulling it over for too long, I decided to pull the trigger and make The Flemish Coil available via Kindle. I'm not sure what the holdup was on my part, but this morning I had some time so I finished the fairly painless process of getting it Kindle ready, so to speak. Kindle Direct Publishing told me it could take as long as 72 hours for the listing to go live. It took less than an hour. When tech works, it's a wonderful thing. Amazon has also created a page just for the Nick Temple File series. It looks great, so why not check it out? I've emailed them asking them to add The Flemish Coil. I'll post the link again when all four Nick Temple Files are on it. I know that it's popular to bash Amazon, but when it comes to publishing and listing my books, I have to say the experience has been a good one. And now I've got a few days off so I think I'll make some progress on The Shadow Chamber, Nick Temple File no. 5.  

Fire

Northern California's wine country is in the grips of the deadliest wildfire in the state's history. We've been lucky here in the City of Napa so far, but it's still too soon to call us completely safe. When I lived on St. Thomas in the USVI many years ago, the compound I was living in erupted in flames one night. It was terrifying. Years later, I wrote a fictionalized version of that fire. That version is the better part of a chapter near the end of my novella Judging Paradise. I reread it this morning. It still terrifies me, or maybe does so once again given the events of the last few days. Here it is: 

Frank had been asleep for a shade more than an hour when he heard the commotion start. In his stupor he reached no conclusions about the noise other than that it was excessive. He was trying to ignore it, thinking it may have been a group of drunks causing trouble for Gaston, when he heard someone pounding on the door to his room. It was Elaine.

"Frank! Get up! There's a fire. Get up. You have to get out of here!"

When in his semiconscious state he grasped that the noise was real, he sat straight up in his bed, and started looking around for some clothes. As he became aware that he was already dressed, he tried to see if he could tell where the fire was. Still in a partial daze, Frank scrambled out of his cottage, heading for the courtyard and into the parking lot. Frank’s first thought was to run to Philippe’s cottage to see if he and Celia were out of danger, but he quickly realized that the worst of the flames were coming from where their cottage should have been. In spite of the danger, Frank, wildly alert now, ran directly towards the flames. He was overwhelmed by the heat before he could get near their door. He called out for them, but he could barely hear himself over the roar of the fire and the commotion in the compound. He looked around in a panic to find Philippe or Celia. He saw neither of them and the fire was spreading. Gaston was desperately and futilely trying to douse the flames with a garden hose. The flaccid stream made no headway against the advancing inferno. He only succeeded in placing himself in danger.        

“Pauline! Pauline! You in there? Get up! Get out!” Joe was pounding on Pauline’s door, the cottage directly adjacent to Philippe’s. Smoke was already coming from her small kitchen window, but the ball of fire had yet to spread. He quit calling for her, broke down the door and ran into the cottage as a great cloud of smoke pushed frantically out of the door. Joe retreated as quickly as he had gone in, his arm covering his nose and mouth. He was coughing, nearly choking, as he stumbled out of the cottage.  He started to head for the cottage at the end of the driveway, but before he got there, Carmen came out. She carefully locked the door behind her before walking to relative safety at the far end of the compound parking lot. 

“Frank! Get the other hose. Get it,” Gaston yelled furiously as he continued to try to make some headway with the pathetically inadequate garden hose.

“Where, Gaston? Where is it?”

“It’s by the pool. At the far end. Hurry, Frank!” Frank, glad to have something to do in the chaos, obeyed and ran off and up the path to fetch the hose. He was aware of his heartbeat, of his sweat, of the clammy feel of his skin under his shirt. He moved as quickly as he could to the far end of the pool. The hose was connected to a spigot and Frank struggled to remove the rusted fitting from the spout. He got the hose off of the spigot, gathered it in loops over his shoulder, and ran back to find Gaston.

By the time he returned, fire had replaced the smoke in Pauline’s cottage, and a quick look around revealed to Frank that Pauline had not gotten out.

“Over there!” Gaston pointed to a hose bib in the garden at the north end of the driveway. Frank ran with the hose and nervously tried to connect it. Sweat from his forehead stung his eyes. His hands were trembling and his heart was racing. The thought of being so close to burning humans terrified and nauseated him.

As Frank finished connecting the hose, a water truck arrived, its huge diesel engine barely audible above the flames. The driver parked the truck so that its back end was about 20 feet in front of the fire. The cab of the truck emptied. Frank thought its crew was moving too deliberately given the unfolding disaster, but once out of the truck they quickly deployed the hose attached to the bottom of the tank, coupled it onto a fitting at the back of the tank nearest the fire, and engaged a large pump at the base of the hose. The stream from the hose was stronger than that from Gaston’s garden hose, but it still seemed pitifully small compared to the fire that had moved from Philippe’s cottage to Pauline’s. Jamal and Delores’ cottage was next.

When Frank got past the banana trees and into the rutted parking lot with the extra garden hose, he could see the flames shooting up over the complex on the other side of the compound. The flames had worked their way around the back of Pauline’s cottage and were now backlighting the interior of Jamal and Delores’ cottage. As Frank looked for a spot to attack the flame with his pitiful stream of water, he noticed people moving in Jamal’s cottage, and just below all the other noises, just underneath the chaos and commotion, he heard drums, the same drums he had heard at the Grand Hotel, the same drums that served as the backdrop to Jamal’s mysterious dance. Silhouetted against the advancing flames he saw the three of them, Jamal, Delores, and Sonny, performing a wild version of what Frank had seen two weeks before. They appeared oblivious to the flames, the heat, and the confusion. Indeed, they appeared to be inspired by the fire, encouraging it, waiting for its sudden, violent destruction. Frank was speechless; no one called to them. Even the firefighters could not believe what they were seeing and hearing. They momentarily froze, mesmerized by the surreal and deadly scene being played out in front of them.

Meanwhile, Joe was looking into the few cars parked nearest to the flame to see if there were any keys in them. The heat should have been overwhelming, but Joe did not move away from it.  Frank, who was trying to work the water from the hose into the flames but careful to keep his distance from the flames at the same time, shouted out to Joe. "Joe! Get away from the cars. Get away from there."

By now the firefighters had regained their composure and they ordered everyone, Gaston, Frank, and Joe, to back away from the flames. One of the firefighters got on the truck’s radio and could be heard imploring a second truck to hurry.

A crash could be heard coming from inside the compound as an interior wall in Pauline’s cottage collapsed scattering sparks and embers that were lifted into the morning sky. Joe flinched at the sound, ducking instinctively. As ordered, he moved back away from the cars and joined Frank and the other onlookers. Elaine and her mother were clutching each other at a distance that seemed to be safe. Frank noticed that James was clinging to the nightgown of Elaine’s mother, shivering, and staring at what was certain to be the terrible death of the only family he knew. His mother had mercifully sent him out of the cottage to play in the parking lot moments before the fire began. Carmen could no longer stand to watch and turned her back on the fire. They had all been joined by George, who looked on with the bemused detachment of a simple drunk.

The fire had now completely consumed Philippe’s cottage and Pauline’s as well, and there had been no screams. Frank hoped in vain that they simply were not home. More embers were being thrown into the morning sky in twisting columns. The fire, smoke, embers, noise, and human confusion all combined to obliterate the day’s promise. The compound seemed to be getting darker in spite of the flames. Thick smoke quickly and mercifully blocked the hideous scene in Jamal’s cottage. The efforts of the various firefighters were coming to naught as the flames spread almost unabated, and then the screams started.

Elaine’s mother grabbed James and led him as quickly as she could toward the far end of the compound so he would not be able to hear the sound of his family’s immolation.  There were three distinct voices in the screams. They were sounds that rose above the rest of the tumult, sounds that brought a halt to all other human activity, sounds that seemed to spew forth from a hot fissure in the earth, sounds that encompassed the terrible agony and confusion of violent, young death. The sounds continued for no more than a minute; the voices each faded as the noise of the flames, of the burning, crackling wood, of the choking, rushing smoke took over and engulfed them for eternity.

Gaston was now running about in a silent and useless panic. Frank noticed that Gaston was barefooted and his feet were bleeding. Gaston had abandoned the garden hose, which Joe picked up, and was dragging buckets of water from his pool and throwing them on the fire, one at a time. He could not have designed a more futile, exhausting gesture. He was approaching his limit.

"Jesus, look at Gaston. The only thing he's going to accomplish is getting himself killed. What the hell is he thinking?" Frank shouted the question to no one in particular. He was about to ask Joe if he should try to help Gaston with the buckets when another large yellow water truck appeared on the far side of the parking lot through the smoke and flying soot. Gaston immediately dropped his bucket and started shouting directions to the small crew of firefighters.

The beginning of the heat of the day and the heat from the fire itself lifted a breeze from the south putting the cottages, including Frank’s, at the north end of the compound in jeopardy. The onlookers in the parking lot felt the wave of heat sweeping towards them.

The second fire truck engine's governor was set to rev high so that the pump on the water tank could drive the water into the flame. The noise of the engine competed with the noise of the fire, one savagely unpredictable, the other steady, mechanically constant and brutally loud. Two men at the nozzle end of the hose of this second truck steadied themselves as the first gush of water shot forth, this one more formidable than any of the others thus far brought to bear on the firestorm. It took the two of them a few moments to direct the stream into the bowels of the flame that had reached more than 30 feet into the air. As they seemed to be getting the upper hand on the fire that was consuming Jamal’s cottage and its inhabitants, Frank noticed that the outer beams supporting the roof of his own cottage were now on fire. Some flying sparks had arced across the parking lot, floating on the recent breeze that seemed to direct them straight for the top of Frank’s home. He dropped the garden hose and ran into the cottage, hoping to salvage something, anything, from his life on Santa Clara.

Elaine saw Frank run into the cottage. She followed him to the threshold and called out after him.

“Frank! Get out of there. It’s not safe. Stay away!”

He ignored her. The fire was moving quickly down through the beams as he looked around in a panic. The cottage was deceptively quiet compared to the chaos of the rest of the compound. Frank could hear his feet slapping on the floor. He managed to grab his wallet and a pile of clothes sitting on his kitchen table. He thought about trying to find his complete works of Shakespeare, and his scorpion trophy, but the quiet was broken as debris was now falling from the ceiling and flames started to surround him; the heat immediately became too intense to continue. He shielded his face from the gathering destruction and ran through the doorway, back into the relatively clear air of Casa Jose’s parking lot. The door slammed shut behind him as if an invisible, demonic hand had decided that this work should be done out of the sight of fragile souls.

With Frank safely out of the cottage, Elaine managed to capture the attention of the first of the firefighting crews. They ran their hose to the north end of the compound, broke down the door to Frank’s cottage and sent a stream of water directly inside. Once they controlled the water, they went about the seemingly methodical task of dousing the flames. From where Frank stood, the firemen appeared to execute a precise plan in exact segments that soon had the fire nearly out. Trucks and crews quickly subdued the fire at the north end of the compound, and just as quickly the flames that had consumed Philippe and Celia, Pauline, and Jamal, Delores and Sonny quit. The fire was out. That was all.

In spite of the lack of flames the firefighters continued to pour water into the now smoldering buildings. The air turned sharp with the stench of the wet, charred structures. Gaston sat at the edge of the compound entrance, exhausted from the turbulent ordeal. As some of the surviving residents ventured back in toward the destruction they put a gentle hand briefly on Gaston's slumped and shaking shoulders. Without a word to the dazed onlookers, the firemen began to retrieve their equipment. An ambulance arrived.

“We’ll need more than one,” Gaston said solemnly to the driver. “I’m not sure how many, but there are at least six people missing.”

As Gaston spoke, two firemen removed a hideously charred body from Philippe’s. Frank could tell right away, from the size of the corpse, that the body on the stretcher had been Philippe. His arms, with the meat of his muscles exposed where his flesh had been burnt completely away, pointed skyward, as if his last gesture had been to seek an embrace. The surviving residents instinctively covered their mouths and turned their heads as one by one they saw the foul result of the satanic deed. What followed was a disgusting parade of charred bodies, six in all, pulled from the steaming and smoking ruins of three small cottages. Celia was brought out after Philippe. The collapse of the wall in Pauline’s cottage made the removal of Pauline more problematic. Indeed, as the firefighters chopped at a timber to gain access to her body, some sparks flew up from the timber. The renewed presence of fire was immediately terrifying, but it was brought quickly under control. By the time Jamal, his wife, and his cousin were removed and set down on plastic next to the other bodies in the parking lot, the heat of the day was beginning to mingle with the stench of the fire, the ashes, the charred bodies, the smoke, and the fouled water to produce a scene so thoroughly revolting to all of his senses that Frank retreated and vomited violently behind the wreck of a structure that moments earlier had been his home. 

 

 

The Flemish Coil Proof

The proof for The Flemish Coil arrived today. I made a few changes and that should do it. I'm hoping it's available on Amazon by the end of the week. This one's been a long time coming, so it feels good to finally be this close. The next project is finishing Requiem Lake, a book that will be about as brutal as it gets. In the meantime, I'm enjoying releasing this latest bit of brain candy, and Nick Temple File no. 4. 

 

Flemish Coil.jpg

Nick Temple Learns to Surf

Silent Vector begins with Nick Temple on vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Eventually he gets around to teaching himself how to surf. It doesn't go well for Nick, but it could have been worse. It's the summer of 1962, and the Caribbean is about to become the epicenter of the superpower showdown known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. As with any other segment in the book, this one has to move the plot along. The brief surfing scene ends with a thief being brutally killed in a manner undoubtedly meant for Nick Temple. What starts out as an innocuous scene moves a deadly plot along simply, quickly, and effectively. Here's the selection from chapter 11 of Silent Vector:

This morning he rented a longboard, put it into the Kaiser Jeep CJ-5 he’s been driving around the island for a month, and drove over the ridge of St. Thomas to Hull Bay. Now, six hours and precious few moments of standing upright on the board for more than two seconds at a time later, Nick is ready to call it a day. His choices aren’t good. He can either paddle the half kilometer back to where his Jeep is parked, or he can take the next small wave (it’s not exactly Waimea, which strikes Nick as a good thing in retrospect) into shore, put the board under his arm and walk. He chooses option number one.

As he approaches the point where his Jeep is parked, his shoulders exhausted, his salt-and-pepper hair and eyelashes caked with sea salt, and his back and face freshly burnt, he sees an islander, a young man perhaps in his early 20s, climb into his Jeep. The fact that the Jeep has no top makes the islander’s move effortless. Nick then sees the man bend over to look beneath the dash.

“The son of a bitch is going to hot wire it,” Nick thinks to himself.

“Hey! Get the fuck away from my car!” he yells.

The islander looks up for a second before resuming his work. Nick paddles furiously, but he’s more than 100 meters away and knows he has no chance if the man knows what he’s doing. And he does. Nick hears the sound of the Jeep’s engine turning over. The islander sits upright, shifts into reverse and. . . . The explosion is ferocious! It throws the shredded islander ten meters into the air. His lifeless body lands with a thud at the high tide mark as what is left of the Jeep is consumed by a ball of fire.

Nick sits up on his surfboard, his lower legs dangling in the warm Atlantic water.

“Tough day to be a thief,” he thinks to himself.

 

Genre and Structure

Four of my books (with a fifth completed) are generally in the thriller genre. They revolve around espionage, government intrigue, and the contest for geopolitical power. A fairly standard genre with many writers practicing their trade in a like manner. Within that genre any number of structures are possible. The one I have employed in all five of the books mentioned above is that of a book-long chase scene. The protagonist gets hints of a plan that will potentially harm the interests it's the protagonist's job to protect. The reader is let in on the antagonist's plan and the book follows the protagonist as he tries to catch up. While surprises are part of the chase, each book has more obstacles than surprises, and those obstacles allow the antagonist to stay ahead of the protagonist for most of each novel. So let's be honest, in a James Bond story, there is little question that Bond will survive and that he will conquer his enemy. So it is with my books. How the protagonist survives and conquers is the meat of the story. The reader observes the chase without undue obfuscation. Hopefully, that will keep the reader's attention without having to resort to surprise turns in the plot or revelations that conveniently, and perhaps artificially, aid the protagonist in the chase. It's a straightforward structure, and that's as it should be, I think. After all, as Tolstoy pointed out, there are really only two stories: a stranger comes to town, and a man goes on a journey. Sending a hero on a journey in an espionage thriller states succinctly what I do in most of my prose.   

Excerpt From The Flemish Coil

The Flemish Coil, Nick Temple File no. 4, sits awaiting publication. I'm hopeful that will take place sometime before the end of the year. The book is unique in my writing experience in that I had a title for it years before I actually wrote it. I learned what a Flemish coil is more than 30 years ago when I was spending time with my father on his boat. I immediately thought, "That sounds like the title of a spy novel." I was reading through his collection of spy thrillers at the time, so that may have influenced my thinking. The bottom line is that I had to sort of back the plot into the title, not an easy feat, at least not for me. The selection below is from the book's first chapter. It takes place on the Glienicke Bridge, the so-called "Bridge of Spies," which entered into the contemporary consciousness thanks to Steven Spielberg's movie starring Tom Hanks. Those of us who served in Berlin during the Cold War could almost feel the bridge's presence at the southwest corner of the city, where east met west, where two superpowers traded human beings as bargaining chips in a deadly geopolitical game. I hope you enjoy it.

FROM CHAPTER 1 OF THE FLEMISH COIL

The two sets of seven men begin walking towards each other. When they are near the middle of the bridge and 20 meters apart they stop. Thompson separates himself from his armed escort as does Smertov. The spies walk slowly towards each other. They are now in the middle of the bridge, one step away from the American sergeant. They stop, facing each other.

“What the fuck are they doing?” the major thinks to himself. “Keep walking, dammit. Keep walking!”

The two men simply shake hands before they resume walking across the bridge. The major breathes a sigh of relief as the exchange is nearly complete.

“Too much cloak and dagger bullshit. There’s got to be an easier way to do this,” he thinks for about the twentieth time since getting this assignment.

Both men are no more than three meters from their countrymen, three meters from returning home, three meters from some measure of freedom when the major hears the faintest of noises from the wooded area north and east of the bridge, like an instant rush of compressed air, followed in less than three seconds by another.

Thompson and Smertov, one immediately after the other, drop to the pavement, each mortally wounded by a sniper’s bullet to the skull.

The Russia Mess

Let's be honest. The Russia mess is embarrassing. Here we are nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War and Russia has got us daily chasing our tails in a way that makes us look like rank amateurs on the world stage. Who's meeting with the Russians? What did they do to our presidential election? How did they do it? Why were we unable to stop it? Why do they seem to be about 10 steps ahead of us? What will they do next? Will we be ready? Do we have any idea how to go on the offensive in this new version of warfare? Are the rapid changes in technology working against us so thoroughly that we'll always be behind this determined and capable adversary?

It's starting to feel, on the technology level at least, like 1957 when the Soviet launch of Sputnik shocked America and its partners in the free world. But here's the thing, it shocked us into action. Sure there was a round of fingerpointing as people tried to find someone to blame for being so clearly behind our feared enemy. But we got to work. We established NASA and charged it with catching up and moving us ahead, we retooled our basic education system, and we generally committed ourselves to the sort of national effort needed to respond to the challenge posed by the Soviet's clear geopolitical advantage. 

What do we see happening now? Denials, cover-ups, infighting, wishful thinking, accusations, and that's about it. None of those constitute a strategy for overcoming this newest Russian threat. Where are the bright ideas from our best minds about what we should be doing strategically to successfully fend off future cyber attacks? Where is the national leadership challenging us to work together to meet this obvious national emergency? Why do we not see an American public united in its resolve to defeat the most recent threat to our democracy? While we bitch about each other, while we spout partisan nonsense for God knows whose consumption, while we call each other "the enemy" and worse, you can bet the Russians, when they're done laughing at us, are hard at work on the next generation of cyber attacks. Given the apparent success of their recent efforts, I shudder to think what the next round might bring if we fail to act decisively and collectively in our clear national interest. Maybe our social, political, and economic leaders should take a hard look at our response to the events of 1957, and see what lessons those very dark days of the Cold War hold for us. That's got to be better than what they're doing now. 

And One More Makes Seven

The Fourth of July. A great day made better by receiving my copies of The Holy Lance. Today is its official release day although it's been available on Amazon for a couple of days now. The Holy Lance is my seventh book, and just because I can't help myself I took a snapshot of my complete works. One more is done, and there should be at least one more after that. Who knows, maybe I'll hit double figures. Feeling pretty good about the whole writing thing today.

 Many years of work in one spot.

Many years of work in one spot.

The Holy Lance Listing on Goodreads

The Holy Lance is just days away from being released. Even though the book's not yet available and can't be ordered until July 4th, it does have a Goodreads listing and can be marked "Want to read." Take a look, check it out, kick the tires, and if you like what you see, mark it as "Want to read" and don't forget to come back on the Fourth of July to order it. Oh, and be sure to tell 100,00 of your closest friends!

A Few Thoughts About the State of American Democracy

While contemplating the degradation of America's political institutions, I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts about where we've been and where we seem to be headed.

There are three fundamental principles of American representative democracy. The first two are descriptive, the third is aspirational and protects against the tyranny of the majority. Those principles are: the people are sovereign; the people exercise their sovereignty through elected representatives; and the majority cannot harm the minority.

The first principle is an abstraction that requires a mechanism for realization. The second principle is that mechanism. It requires rules to fairly implement, and it assumes fair and even implementation of the principle is desirable and possible. The third, simple enough on its face, is at once highly problematic and absolutely necessary. In its absence, as noted above, democracy is simply a tyranny of the majority. We have struggled, often violently, over the third principle for all of our history.

For two centuries the majority rationalized its unceasing harm of the minority. The majority now correctly perceives its inevitable transition into the minority, and it suddenly insists on a perverse application of the third principle, that protection of the minority should equal ascendence of the soon-to-be minority over the emerging majority. (By the way, that application is similar to protections John Calhoun sought in antebellum America for an increasingly politically outnumbered slave-owning class.) Additionally, that application, many in the fading majority hope, will result in de facto and de jure permanent minority status for the emerging majority.

Three institutions, one informal, one formal and largely immutable, and one formal and subject to only those changes it is willing to undergo, are manipulated for the long-term benefit of the fading majority: redistricting, the electoral college, and the Senate. SCOTUS can eliminate the gerrymandering that occurs under the first; the states can eliminate the second; and only the Senate can reform itself. If none of those reforms happen, our representative democracy will continue on its present path and eventually resemble South Africa under apartheid.

What, if anything, happens after that is a crapshoot.