Monday, July 9, 2012

Real Life Thrillers, starring - The Reds!


JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I spent the summer between my junior and senior college years in Italy, digging on a mesolithic hunting site and visiting the must-see towns; Pisa, Florence, Rome. One afternoon, I was touring the Eternal City with my very attractive archeology professor (upon whom I had a massive crush.) We had paused at the Spanish Steps, admiring the view while the crowds swirled around us, when something odd happened. A well-dressed man strode past me and laid a small notebook on the corner of one of the piazza's trashcans. He walked on without pausing.

In that instant, I felt like I had stepped into a thriller. I could see how it would play out; I, the innocent American student, would pick it up and see that it contained pages and pages of numbers. The handsome professor would try to figure it out. Dangerous men would come after us. We would narrowly escape from the Pensione. Romance and adventure and late-night train rides across Europe would ensue.

Of course, none of it happened. We passed without picking the notebook up and went for gelato. Well, there were late-night European train rides as I burned up my Eurail pass, and there was a romance that winter, after I was no longer in his class, but, like most of us outside the bounds of a good thriller, I didn't stumble upon an international conspiracy. But I've never forgotten the sense that, for just a moment, I was a character at the beginning of mysterious, pulse-pounding story.

How about you, Reds? Have any of you ever felt like you had slipped into the pages of a Bourne novel? Ever seem as if Jack Reacher might be just around the corner?

JAN BROGAN - So you ALMOST got involved with Jason Bourne, right Julia?  I almost got involved with Don Corleone. When I was investigating the corruption of the credit unions when I was in Providence, I had to interview the president of one of the credit unions rumored to be mob-owned. When I went in for the interview, they tried to intimidate me but surrounding me with three very Godfather casting call "Bankers."  Luckily for me, I wore high heels that day, which made me about six foot two to their five' five. As we rode the elevator tot he meeting, with them surrounding me, I was never so happy to be tall in my life.  After the interview, but before the insurance fund and the unions actually crashed, I started getting hang ups at my phone at home, in Massachusetts. I was pregnant with my first child and imagined all sorts of ways they would "off me."  But even then I followed the story, no one came close to hurting me.  Although they did keep complaining to my editors that I was getting everything "wrong,"   I went on maternity leave and the entire  credit union system collapsed.  This is pretty awful to admit, but I felt vindicated, rather than sorry (which would have been the correct emotion.)

LUCY BURDETTE: We were sailing earlier this summer on a small boat in the British Virgin Islands. Twice over the week, people disappeared. One minute they were snorkeling, the next minute vanished. In both cases, happily they resurfaced, having been hidden by a cove or some larger waves. But both times, I had the horrible, utterly panicked feeling that this was the beginning of a frightening story. I would HATE to actually to be living in a thriller. But at least I took notes so maybe I can use that awful sense of foreboding in the future.

RHYS BOWEN: When I was a student a friend from Oxford and I took the train to Greece, through the old Yugoslavia--still very much oppressed and communist run at that time. When we reached the border crossing men came on the train to look at our passports. Mine was fine. They said Ruth's visa was no good. You must come with us, they said, and took her off the train into a little hut. Of course I was going through agony. Should I go after her, leaving all our things on the train? What exactly were they doing inside that hut? I waited and waited. The train started to move again. Full of dread I pictured the telegram I'd send to her parents "Have lost your daughter in Yugoslavia." Then miraculously the compartment door opened and there was a very breathless Ruth. It has been a scam to make her buy a new, and more expensive, visa. In the end she'd paid up and rushed to swing aboard the train.
It was at that moment I realized how very un-intrepid I was.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I arrived in London on the morning of 9/11, UK time. I drove to a little town on the Sussex coast, and didn't learn what had happened until that evening. No phones, no email. All flights shut down. It was a week before I had any contact with my family, and two before I knew I'd be able to get home. That was closer than I ever want to be to a thriller...

ROSEMARY HARRIS: Not at the time, but way after. I can remember sneaking into a bar in Brooklyn...um...I was underage...and getting chatted up by a guy that that later investigated as being a part of the Luftansa heist. One of my friends was actually interviewed by the cops. Every time I watch Good Fellas I think YOW...thank goodness I didn't go home with that guy!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: What fabulous stories! Let's see--my Dad was a diplomat, and posted in Hamburg. He couldn't go over into East Germany, but my friend and I could. We did--age 17 and alone in East Berlin, with Vopos (and German Shepherds on every corner. Allison and I realized were were absolutely on our own, in a place that still was bombed out and terrifying. (Maybe it was a YA thriller.)

More recently, I was in a private plane, being flown to cover a story in St. Johnsbury Vermont about an alleged cult that was accused of beating their congregants' children. It was a beautiful sunny day, my photographer was in the front seat, and I was in the back of the four seater. I happened to notice..as we were merrily flying over southern Vermont, that the pilot was falling asleep!  I instantly started chattering, talking non-stop, offering him candy. But all the while I was writing my notebook: THE PILOT IS FALLING ASLEEP. So if we crashed, the people who found the wreckage would know what happened.

Gosh, as a reporter I've wired myself with hidden cameras, sneaked into places in disguise, confronted corrupt scam artists, chased after criminals. (Once absolutely splatting on the sidewalk, ruining my tights and getting bloody knees.) (Maybe that was comedy thriller.)

JULIA: How about you, dear Readers? Have any of you ever stepped inside your own thriller?

19 comments:

Edith Maxwell said...

I had an experience a little like Rhys'. My family and I were living in Burkina Faso but went on vacation to a faded old colonial resort on the beach outside Abidjan in Ivory Coast. One day we took a bus into the city, my husband at the time and our two young sons. Mid-way into the hour ride the bus stopped and military boarded, asking to see everyone's papers. Well, we had passports for everyone in the family except me - I knew we weren't leaving the country so didn't bring it that day. BIG mistake. I had to get off the bus. My protests (in French) only made things worse. The officers had big guns. I am a foot shorter than six feet tall!

John and the boys got off the bus with me, we waited around, and when we stonewalled them about not paying a bribe, they finally let us go. The bus was long gone so we grabbed a passing taxi for the rest of the ride. The experience really shook me, seeing that they could have done anything they wanted.

Jack Getze said...

With AP and NY Times reporters, I rode an oil tanker down from Valdez, Alaska to Cherry Point, WA with the first load of crude from the Alaska Pipeline. 1977. I had to walk through pickets getting on, and some of those nice environmentalists carried signs which said they were going to blow us up at sea. The captain they were taking the bomb threats very seriously and were we sure we wanted to go? Also, don't fall off, the captain said, because it takes six miles to turn this ship around and I won't bother."You'd be dead anyway in this cold water."

Lucy Burdette said...

Those make great openings Edith and Jack!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, what terrific stories! And Julia, the illustrations are hilarious!

Of course, these days, just driving along the Mass Pike is a thriller-in-the-making..crazy Boston drivers!

Linda Rodriguez said...

When I was seventeen, I was a hippie living with my boyfriend in a terrible tenement in Haight-Ashbury. Our next-door neighbors were Hell's Angels with more living down the hall.

One day, one of our neighbors forced his way into our apartment and began pushing around my boyfriend. The guy was drunk and stoned and dangerous. He started beating my boyfriend, so I grabbed this huge ginger-jar table lamp and smashed it over his head. I then grabbed another smaller lamp to fend him off when he turned on me, giving my bf a chance to flee out the door and get help. But that hideous huge lamp knocked him unconscious, and we both fled.

I thought we'd have the whole gang down on our necks, but the other Hell's Angels came and took him away and apologized for "the fuss." Still, I learned how to throw knives from a friend and used to practice in the backyard in full sight of their rooms, so they wouldn't change their minds. (I never threw a knife at anything but a tree trunk.)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Whoa, Linda, I want you on MY team!

Linda Rodriguez said...

Always, Hank! But I was a strong, athletic young woman then. I'm a little worse for wear now. xoxo

Terry Shames said...

A few years ago we were in the Bahamas on our boat with friends. We stopped at an island where members of the Medelin cartel had their beautiful homes before they all got sent to jail. We three women went onto the island to explore. We were confronted by a scowling young man who told us it wasn't a good place for us to be. Not to be intimidated, we told him we just wanted to walk to the other side of the island to see the cove.

We set off across the old landing strip and along a path and soon came upon the ruins of those beautiful houses. We found the exotic cove--but felt very uneasy, so we started back. And then the helicopter came. It followed our progress through the jungle back to our boat. We were scared to death, imagining bullets raining down on us. We hustled back to the boat FAST.

Deb Romano said...

Funny stories! Hank, if I had been in that plane, I would have been scared speechless! I was in a similar situation as a passenger with a driver who fell asleep. I realized it as the car got within a couple of inches of a utility pole. I tried to say something but no words came out of my mouth! At the very last second,the driver woke up and swerved away.

Linda, I could have used lessons from someone like you when I was growing up in a not so good neighborhood! I once saved my younger brother's life by kicking off the attacker.

I receive interesting messages on my home answering machine. Over a period of about a year and a half I received messages for someone whom I will call "Dennis". Most of the calls were from someone who identified himself as his brother. They went like this: "Dennis? This is your brother Paul. I have a job for you to do. Pick something up for me in Cape Cod - use my truck -get it to me tonight and I'll pay you one hundred dollars. In cash."
A number of things went through my mind when I listened to these messages. Among them: It's MY voice on the machine. Do I sound like the wife or girlfriend of Dennis?Why doesn't "Paul"have his own brother's phone number? Why does he always identify himself as "your brother"? Wouldn't Dennis know that? Where is Paul calling from? It always sounded like there was a lot of truck traffic in the background. Why didn't Paul leave his phone number? I could have called him to tell him that he had called the wrong number. (But I'm not really sure I would have wanted to to talk to someone who was involved in what sounded like a shady business.) And, obviously, WHAT needed to be delivered? Was it a Mafia activity?

The last time I received a call for Dennis was about seventeen years ago. I was at work and I called my home to see if I had received a message from a doctor's office. There was a message for Dennis. A friend had Yankee tickets that he could not use for a game that night. He said he needed to know by four that afternoon if Dennis wanted them. He left a call-back number. I called to tell him that he had not reached Dennis. The friend was in a meeting so I left a message with someone else, who burst out laughing. Afterwards, I thought that I should have asked the friend to give ME the tickets,since I had been running an answering service for Dennis for so long!

Jan Brogan said...

Wow Linda,
I am NOT messing with you.

Terry, I wonder what was going on. Was it a government helicopter? We saw a lot of those on the coast of Puerto Rico where they were always on the lookout for drug smuggling and illegal immigration. Perfect opening for a novel, either way.

Deb, I wonder if Paul was messing with you.....

Linda Rodriguez said...

Wow, Terry! Super scary! Use it in a book.

DebR, it sounds to me like you don't need anyone to help if you kicked off your brother's attacker. You go, girl!

Jan, damn straight you don't mess with me. I'll hit you with my cane. ;-)

Marianne in Maine said...

Many years ago my husband and I were in Vienna, having torte at an outside table at the Hotel Sacher. We looked at everyone in a trench coat as a Robert Ludlam or Helen MacInnes character. A week later we were in Munich and I had to visit the ladies room. We found one in a subway station off the Marienplatz. While my husband waited for me, a bearded man came up to him and asked him if he was an American in broken English. He sounded Russian. I joined them about that time and I was rushed away quickly by a slightly nervous husband. We laughed that we had been followed on the train by a Russian spy because we saw something at the Hotel Sacher. It's still a funny memory of that trip.

lil Gluckstern said...

Oh boy. You guys have had a lot of adventures. Very exciting-maybe too much :)

Diane Hale said...

You folks get way too much excitement in your lives. I've never had a thriller-worthy event;several scary ones, mostly associated with being on scene working on shooting victims (and wondering if one of the bystanders would shoot me if I did too good a job), or having an engine failure (one of two on our helicopter) over the Trinity River. Just lucky??

Deb Romano said...

Jan,
A few years after I stopped receiving calls for "Dennis" I found out that someone with the same first and last name as "Paul" owned a seafood distributing company in our town, so I had to assume that the calls were legitimate. Darn! My vivid imagination had come up with all sorts of scenarios! Paul is just some guy who can't remember phone numbers! I had even checked public recoreds to see if his brother Dennis owned real estate or a car in our town (no) and checked to see if he was a registered voter here (no again; I do my homework:-) There were several people in town with the same first and last name as brother Paul,though, and as I said, it turns out that one of them had that seafood business here. At the time,I did not know that. It has since moved out off town. I can imagine that whenever one of his regular drivers was sick, he decided to see if his brother wanted to earn some extra money. My own interpretation was so much more colorful!

I still think I should have asked the friend for the Yankee tickets...I could have sold them!

Anonymous said...

Some years ago, my husb and I were vacationing in a lovely hotel on the Acupulco coast. One night we were awakened by a half screaming half choking sound coming from the suite opposit to ours., Looking out, we saw two male guests dithering about whether to bang on the suite door. My gallant husband didn't hesitate, rushed and banged on the door, just as two security guys arrived. They, disturbed by the now scary sounds coming from the room, used a key, rushed in to find a woman hanging over the edge of the bed, being choked by a man !. She was in a bad way. Security shooed us back to our rooms. At breakfast next morning guests were looking to see if the couple would show. They were not seen from that night until they turned up on our flight home. Laughing, drinking, smooching...

Lisa Alber said...

I think I've mentioned this here before: While living in Ecuador, hunting down an ETA member with the local police. He'd stolen all my money. He was scary--total junkie too (hence, his need for money). Riding with the cops was an experience, that's for sure.

Hank, you've got the exciting life in my book. So much fodder for your novels!

Lora said...

No Bourne novel but how about Karin Slaughter? I was on 422 in PA one dark and stormy night (really!), about 20 years ago. I was on my way to see my boyfriend in Reading, PA from Hopewell, NJ. I saw a car pulled over to the side of the road, blinkers on, and what looked like 2 women with long blonde hair on both their heads. So I stopped to help these "ladies". It was really two men. The one had a tire wrench in his hands when I got out of the car...but so did I (cause I'm not totally stupid) and I asked if I could help them. Awkward silence. They looked at each other for a few moments, and then the one said, "Naw, we are ok." I said, "Would you like me to get you some help at the next exit?" They said, "no,no we are fine." I got in the car very carefully, and as I pulled away, they got in their car and they pulled away. Miracle fix on the car! Very creepy...

Life After Death said...

I've read your article & thanks for sharing this kind of unknown info.