Tuesday, February 28, 2017


by K.J. Howe

Have you ever heard the term response consultant?  If not, you’re not alone.  A hidden world exists in the private security field, and I have spent the last three years researching this dark arena.  Response consultant is the industry term for kidnap negotiators, and these heroic individuals travel to the globe’s hotspots, risking their own lives to help bring hostages home.

Kidnapping, also known as K&R—kidnap and ransom—has become an international crisis, with over 40,000 reported cases every year.  In many third world countries, displaced military and police are turning to kidnapping as a way of putting food on the table.  They have the required tactical skills to manage the abduction and captivity of hostages, and kidnapping can be quite lucrative.  And terrorists are also filling their coffers by abducting people.  The prime targets for kidnapping are wealthy business people and their families, professionals traveling abroad, tourists, journalists, and aid workers. 

To survive a kidnapping, people need to fight against their instincts—because our natural reaction in our hypothalamus when threatened is to fight or flee.  Both of these responses can result in serious consequences for hostages.  Instead, people in captivity need to find ways to endure countless hardships, poor hygiene, lousy food, restrictions on their movements, endless boredom, and a constant, pervasive fear for their lives and find a way to maintain the hope that one day they will be free to enjoy life again.  I wanted to create a series that would explore the different facets of kidnapping, hopefully bringing attention to this growing international crisis so we can bring more hostages home.

Kidnapping is a purgatory of sorts, the rest of the world going on with their normal lives while hostages’ lives are frozen in time, every decision of every day governed by their abductors.  To learn all that I could about kidnapping, I interviewed response consultants as well as former hostages, reintegration specialists, K&R insurance experts, and Special Forces soldiers who deliver ransoms and execute rescues.  I’m constantly working to further my education, as I want to bring verisimilitude to my series highlighting kidnap negotiator Thea Paris.  THE FREEDOM BROKER is the first book in the series. 

Thea is a woman working in a what has traditionally been a male-dominated world dominated, but she stands her ground, works hard, and is extremely capable in her job.  She is also personally motivated to help hostages, as her brother was kidnapped in front of her when she was only eight years old.  When her father is abducted before the most important deal of his career, Thea is determined to bring him safely home.  But the kidnapper doesn’t send the traditional ransom demands, but instead texts Latin quotes, leaving Thea embroiled in the case of her life.

There are many different types of kidnapping, and I hope to explore them throughout the Freedom Broker series.  When I first decided to write about kidnapping, I took a bit of a risk and attended a K&R conference.  I slowly developed relationships with the generous and heroic people who work in this industry.  They were kind enough to introduce me to other individuals with a background in different aspects of kidnapping, and so on from there.  I’m deeply grateful to all the experts who spent time patiently educating me.

I hope that readers will take Thea into their hearts.  Although she is strong, smart, and capable, she is also vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, like all of us.  She has type 1 diabetes, and she keeps it a secret because she doesn’t want to be treated differently by her team.  And her blind loyalty to her father and brother is tested in THE FREEDOMBROKER.  I hope that readers will relate to her fears and cheer her on as she strives to bring her kidnapped father back home. 

Interested in learning more about the kidnap hot zones?  Please visit my website to see a map of the most dangerous kidnapping zones in the world.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Honoring those who went unnoticed

S. Lee Manning: The best spies are the people who are least noticed. The handsome dashing man or gorgeous woman may be appealing in fiction – so of course some of us, including me – have them as protagonists –but standing out can be a liability in espionage. Spies need to fly under the radar. Who better to do so than the people we don’t generally notice: the servants or, in the case of American history, African-American slaves?

In this round of blogs we are writing about history and spies. February is also Black History Month. In honor of that, I want to use this opportunity to recognize some of those who often went unrecognized: the African-American spies in the early days of the United States. Given the limits of this post, I've only named a few. 

The Revolutionary War

The story of Nathan Hale, the American spy, caught and hung by the British who said the famous words, “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” is well known. The story of James Armistead (1760-1832) not as much, although the information he provided may have helped turn the war for the Americans.

Armistead, born a slave in Virginia, was loaned out by his master to General Lafayette.  He infiltrated General Cornwell’s headquarters by pretending to be a run-away slave and volunteering to spy on the American forces. Lafayette had sent other spies to infiltrate the British, but only Armistead succeeded.  He traveled between British camps, learning information from officers who spoke openly of strategy in front of him – and he’d write detailed notes to be delivered to Washington. Reports he sent to Lafayette were instrumental in Lafayette’s military victory at Hampton, and Washington’s victory at Yorktown.

After the war, he was returned to his master. In 1784, Lafayette, outraged that Armistead had not been freed, wrote a testimonial letter that resulted in an act of the Virginia Legislature freeing him.

The Civil War

African-American efforts as spies and scouts were vital to the success of the Northern forces.

George Scott, a runaway slave, provided solid intelligence on Confederate positions to General Butler before one of the first large-scale battles of the war.  On his way north after running away, he noticed that the rebels were erecting battlements. Union officers were impressed but wanted confirmation. He accompanied an officer on dangerous scouting missions, risking his life, but obtaining vital information. General Butler incompetently handled the resulting battle, but Scott, like all good spies, was only responsible for the intelligence.

John Scobell, a Pinkerton operative, worked behind the lines, masking his efforts by playing the role of cook, laborer, or servant. He would contact members of the local black community to get information on troop movements and strength, and to act as couriers back to the Union lines.

Black women played a large and sometimes unrecognized role in obtaining intelligence that helped the Union win the war.

Harriet Tubman is the most well-known. She is getting some of the recognition she deserves for her role in fighting slavery and will soon be the first woman whose picture will grace American currency. Did you know she was also a spy? She worked as a scout for Union forces, donning disguises and leading mission behind enemy lines to report on Confederate troop movements.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser is less well known. Born a slave, she was freed by her former master’s daughter, Elizabeth Van Lew, and who, as a Union supporter and spy master, recruited Mary to spy for the North.  Mary, a highly intelligent woman with a photographic memory, changed her name to Ellen Bond, and went to work as a servant in the home of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy. Considered a dim witted black, she was able to listen to conversations and read and memorize papers on Davis’ desk. She then passed the information on to Elizabeth Van Lew or to a baker who delivered bread to the Confederate White House. Near the end of the war, Davis began to suspect her and she fled.

In 1995, Mary Elizabeth Bowser was recognized for her vital work and inducted into the US Army Military Intelligence Corp. Hall of Fame.

Mary Touveste was a freed African-American woman who made her living as a servant. In that role, she obtained a job in the home of a Confederate engineer in Norfolk, Virginia, who was working on turning the Merrimac into an iron clad war ship. Over the course of several months, she was able to copy some of the plans and documents for the ship. In February, 1862, a few weeks before completion of the Merrimac, she disappeared with her copies of the documents – and got them into the hands of the Union Secretary of the Navy. The Union quickly completed its own ironclad, the USS Monitor. Mary Touveste thereafter disappeared from history. It is not known whether she acted on her own or had been recruited as a spy.

A salute to these brave African-American men and women of history, and to the others - some known, some forgotten - who put their lives on the line, and sometimes died, in the dangerous pursuit of knowledge that is the espionage game. They had to go unnoticed to succeed as spies – but it is incumbent on all of us to notice them now.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


Artist's reconstruction of the ancient Acropolis in Athens
By Gayle Lynds 
True or false? ... In the 19th century, Austria and Russia were on the verge of war.  In hopes of working out an agreement, the emperor of Austria and the czar of Russia agreed to meet secretly one foggy night on a barge in the middle of the Vistula River.  Concerned about security — and that nothing would leak out about their meeting — each took only one trusted attendant.

Still, despite all of their precautions, the very next day the entire conversation appeared in The London Times.  Why?  Because both of the attendants were British spies.

Are you smiling?  That’s because we’re somehow not surprised.  I doubt it’s a factual story — I’ve never been able to validate it.  But doesn’t it somehow ring true?  We live in a world that accepts espionage as a given.

But then, intelligence gathering — espionage — dates back thousands of years.

Here are five ancient leaders whose use of intelligence changed the course of history, and sometimes not to their benefit.....

1.  Moses – likely born between 1391 and 1592 BCE   Moses was not only the founder of Israel, he made the earliest recorded covert assignment, according to the Old Testament:  "And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, send thou men that they may search the land of Canaan."
Moses sends spies into Canaan

So Moses picked twelve, one from each of the tribes, and ordered them into Canaan, “the Promised Land,” on an undercover mission to collect intel. 

After being gone quite some time, the spies returned.  Only two claimed Canaan was a land of milk and honey, the Canaanites had grown fat and lazy, and God would help the Israelites defeat them.  But a vast majority of the spies — ten — reported fearfully that the Canaanites were too strong to be conquered.  The Israelites believed the majority, refused to invade, and, as God’s punishment, spent the next forty years wandering in the desert. 

Moses the Spymaster had made a costly mistake — he'd chosen his spies on the basis of tribe not on skill and determination.  And then he hadn’t sent another round into Canaan for a more nuanced and thorough investigation.  Verdict: Moses was learning, the hard way.

2.  Darius the Great, born c. 550 BCE
Darius I, imagined by Greek painter
Back in the day, Darius the Great conquered and ruled most of the ancient world.  He was well known for employing spies called “the eyes and ears of the king.”  They kept watch over the civilian and military leaders who ran his vast empire, sending their reports through his postal service on roads he’d built to connect his vast empire.

When he captured a major Ionian city called Miletus, Darius gave it to a Greek named Histiaeus to rule.  As time passed, Histiaeus grew wealthy and powerful, which made Darius nervous.  So Darius ‘invited’ Histiaeus to live with him in Persia. 

That continued a while, until Darius gave the city away again.  Furious, Histiaeus wanted his city back.  So he concocted a clandestine plan, which began with shaving the head of his most faithful slave and tattooing a message on the skin.  It was an early form of steganography, or secret writing.  As soon as the hair grew back, he sent the man off to the city’s new ruler, who also happened to be his son-in-law. 

The son-in-law ordered the hair shaved and read the Histiaeus's command to go to war.  The result was the Ionian Revolt.  Be careful what you wish for.  The Ionians’ ingenious secret messaging worked, but Darius's spies figured out what was about to happen, and he won the rebellion.

3.  Aristides the Just, born c. 530 BCE  Darius wasn't satisfied with winning the Ionian Revolt.  
He wanted to punish the Athenians and other Greeks for 
helping the Ionians.  So in 490 BCE he assembled a 
massive force and invaded, landing just north of Athens.
Aristides the Just

One of Greece's commanding generals was Aristides, who was also a statesman.  Naturally, he employed spies.  One of them heard that a Persian undercover agent had sneaked into camp.  So Aristides ordered every soldier, shield-maker, doctor, and cook to account for another person there.  In that way he uncovered the infiltrator.

Soon the two armies met on the Plain of Marathon.  In a straight line and at a dead run, the Greek warriors attacked the overwhelming Persian force.  As the Greek generals expected, the middle of their line weakened and gave way, while their flanks encircled and butchered the trapped Persians.  The Persians had been completely surprised — none of their spies had uncovered the unusual military plan.  An estimated 6,400 Persians died that day, while the Greeks lost 192. 

The victory gave the fledgling Greek city states confidence in their ability to defend themselves and belief in their continued existence. The battle is considered a defining moment in the development of European culture, and of course espionage played an important role.

4. Hannibal of Carthage, born 247 BCE
Hannibal was one of the greatest spymasters in history.  He created an intelligence network that infiltrated enemy Roman camps and used secret hand signals to identify themselves to one another.  He was also a renowned military commander.  His most famous campaign was during the Second Punic War (218-202), when his army crossed the Alps on elephants and fought its way toward the biggest, glitziest prize of all — Rome.
Marble bust reputedly of Hanniba

At the time, Rome’s dictator was Fabius — AKA: Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus.  Fabius refused to meet Hannibal in battle because of Hannibal’s military superiority.  Instead, Fabius chose harassment and guerrilla assaults to wear down the intruder’s forces while conserving his own.

Frustrated, Hannibal was unable to close in on Rome.  Then his spies reported the city was filled with rumors because of Fabius’s refusal to fight.  They were saying Fabius was in Hannibal’s pay.  Hannibal must have smiled at the news.  He sent his soldiers on a rampage across the countryside, destroying and burning everything in their path — except Fabius’s properties. 

As soon as the news reached Rome, Fabius issued proclamations he was no traitor.  But his people didn’t believe him, and Hannibal gained valuable psychological advantage and respite from Fabius’s delaying tactics.  Still, Hannibal never conquered Rome.  He returned to Carthage unscathed — and also legendary.

5.  Julius Caesar, born 100 BCE
In Ancient Rome, major political players built their own surveillance systems to provide intel about the schemes of their fellow movers and shakers.  Politician and orator Cicero complained frequently
Julius Caesar, in British Museum
 that his letters were the prey of others:  "I cannot find a faithful message-bearer," he wrote to a friend. "How few are they who are able to carry a rather weighty letter without lightening it by reading?”

It’s no surprise that Julius Caesar put together an elaborate covert network to keep himself informed about the plots against him.  On March 15th, 44 AD, he was walking to the Curia of Pompeii when a note from one of his spies was urgently thrust into his hand.  It contained a list of senators and their plans to kill him. 

But Caesar was in such a hurry that he didn’t stop to read it.  Within the hour, he was assassinated.  Lesson:  What good is first-rate intel if you don’t read it!

Do you have a favorite spymaster from the ancient world?  Please leave a comment and tell us all about him or her.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Fickle Winds of Fate

by Chris Goff

Sunset at Salt Pond Beach, local playing uke, cue whales. We saw four breach that afternoon!
I'd love to know who coined the phrase "the fickle winds of fate," but I'll be damned if I can find a reference. All I know is, weather can wreak havoc with a writer.

On a personal level

Headed North toward Hanalei.
Mentally, for weeks now, weather has been wreaking havoc with my writing.

On January 21st, my husband and I flew to Kaua'i, Hawaii, two weeks prior to our daughter's wedding. She lives there, but for all of her siblings (she has five) and all of her mainland guests, this was a destination wedding. Despite Mt. Wai'ale'ale, Kaua'i's second highest peak, being billed locally as the wettest spot on earth, the temperatures on the island range anywhere from 78° to 85°F year round. And—at least on the south side of the island—the sun nearly always shines. Perfect weather for sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling, whale-watching cruises, hiking, ziplining, hammocking and weddings. Writing, not so much.

For two weeks plus, I did nothing but play and spend quality time with the husband, the kids, family, friends, and my granddaughter (the grandson is on semester abroad and couldn't be there).

And then there was home.

Granted, Colorado isn't a bad place to live. We get sunshine 300 plus days a year. What we don't have is a beach! We have had record temperatures the past two weeks, which has helped my reentry; still, it's been hard to focus. I've decided I'd be more prolific if I lived in, say, Michigan. My youngest daughter (who teaches middle school in Grand Rapids and suffers from S.A.D.—seasonal affective disorder) says it's been brutal getting back to her routine, despite the weather making it desirable to be indoors.

I have no doubts that some writers suffer from S.A.D., most commonly known as winter depression (it can happen in the summer, too, but that's more rare). The winter blues occur as the days get shorter, light becomes scarce and the weather grows cold.

Nothing a trip to Kaua'i wouldn't cure!

All kidding aside

Writers and poets through time have used weather and seasons to set the scene, drive a plot, and mimic emotion.

My first weather encounter in crime fiction came in Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. In this book (first published in 1939 under a different title), a group of people are lured into coming to an island under different pretexts. Some are there for employment opportunities, others to meet up with old friends, and others for a late summer holiday. The guests all have one thing in common—they all have committed some heinous act, either escaping justice or having never been charged for their crimes. During dinner on the first night, they are informed by a gramophone recording that they have been brought to the island to pay for their sins. They are the only ones on the island, and they cannot escape due to the distance to the mainland and inclement weather. Then, one by one, they are all killed; each in a manner that seems to mimic an old British nursery rhyme, now entitled "Ten Little Soldier Boys." The story ends with a twist, and is Christie's bestselling novel with more than 100 million copies sold. It is also the world's bestselling mystery and one of the bestselling books of all time.

Some of today's best crime writers have also used weather to set mood, isolate characters or drive plot. Read: Whiteout by Ken Follett, Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane, Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen... Read RED SKY, my most recent novel, due out June 13. In it, I use weather to set scene and to make it more difficult for my protagonist, Raisa Jordan, to acquire much needed intel.

My guess is, we can all quote the biggest catchphrase for bad writing, coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford. His opening sentence—wait for it—"It was a dark and stormy night..." Writer's Digest described it as "the literary poster child for bad story starters;" while, on the flipside, the American Book Review ranked it No. 22 on its "Best First Lines from Novels" list. Needless to say, the opening has spawned a number of Worst First contests offering prizes to the writer who writes the worst first sentence of an imaginary novel.

Side note

When I first started writing, I attended a workshop offered in Glenwood Springs, CO, taught by none other than Lawrence Block and Joanne Greenberg. During the week we were there, the two held a contest for the worst first opening line of a novel. I won an honorable mention and a roll of Lifesavers for my entry, "He knew she knew that he knew she knew...."

Bottom line

Weather is out there. It affects us all on a daily basis—getting us outdoors or keeping us in, making us happy or making us sad. It affects the earth, helping plants to grow or making them shrivel. It can wreak havoc in the form of super storms, isolate us on deserted islands or provide a fresh blanket of snow for a spectacular getaway on skis (preferably the antagonist's, making it worse for our hero or heroine). Weather is not something that can be omitted. If your character sees the moon and stars, the sky must be clear. If the ground is wet and slippery, it's likely raining or storming. If your protagonist is wearing a parka, it must be cold; if she's rockin' a bikini, it must be warm. Weather affects everything, but it's something we write inherently. Used with intent, it can produce great things. Think Swiss Family Robinson.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Art of Play

by Chris Goff

Hammocking at Brenneke's. We saw multiple whales breaching that day! Amazing!
My husband and I are just back from Kaua'i and our daughter Danielle's wedding, and I thought I'd share some of the photos. My daughter and her new husband live on island, so for them this is home. For their family and friends from the mainland (to put things in perspective, the bride has five siblings), it's called "a destination wedding." As you can see from the photos, we made the most of it!

Ziplining with Outfitters Kaua'i (the bride's employer).

Whale-watching with Blue Dolphin. We saw lots of tail.

The top of Waimea Canyon.

and the view of the Napali Coast


Hammocking at Waimea Plantations (best "hotel" ever).

Snorkling at Poipu Beach

Turtle heading for the snorklers. Some were lucky enough to swim with them.

Chickens on the beach--only in Kaua'i

Hiking the Kalalau Trail to the Napali Coast.

The bride and groom in their natural habitat--Salt Pond Beach.

The favorite brother (the only son) on Polihale Beach--the farthest south you can go.

The bridesmaids(a sister-in-law and four sisters) dancing barefoot to the wedding.

The sunset reception, followed by dinner under the tent.

Mr. and Mrs. Davis
Now, with the trip behind us it's time to get back to work.
Please check back on Sunday for my regular post.

Mahalo and Aloha!