It’s morning and the dawn sun is pouring over the ridge, you’ve got your line in the water and a fresh cup of coffee beside you. The air is cool and you’ve got that cigar you have been saving for just such a morning. There’s a gentle tug on your line and then . . .
You hear shots ring out and echo across the lake, a powerboat sweeps by, too close, its motor thundering and throwing up a tsunami of a wake. That hog of a bass, the one you’ve always waited for, spits your ten-dollar Cabela lure, you drop your cigar, and hot coffee spills onto your lap. You utter the type of profanities only heard on the golf course and then about that time . . .
. . . a second boat roars by and now they’re shooting at you, leaving you injured and miles from any human, where you may go undiscovered for days . . . or perhaps you are never found save by the fish who nibble and tear at your water-logged, bloated corpse.
I’m a mystery writer and this is the type of ‘what-if?’ that led me to write Thunder Storme, a mystery novel that kicks off with a dawn attack on ex-NFL Superstar, Wyatt Storme and his friend, Chick Easton, a skip-tracer and former CIA sniper, on a fishing vacation. Will Storme and Easton be able to repel the attack and kill the shooters? What if the shooters drown and disappear along with their guns in the cold deep waters of the bottomless lake. Would Storme and Easton’s self-defense tale be believed as there are no witnesses and the evidence is at the bottom of the lake?
After imagining that scenario as an opening scene, I began to consider the background hoping to conjure up a setting that would become an active character in its own right. The Truman/Lake Ozark waters are perfect for what I wanted to convey. Truman Lake and Lake of the Ozarks occupy a massive area, stretching and meandering across more miles of shoreline than the state of California (The two lakes, which dam the Osage River, are connected and cover 110,000 acres). Millions flock to the Lakes area every year and there are places in the hills surrounding where no human has set foot since the days of Daniel Boone. The isolation and immensity of the area is serene and awe-inspiring.
I have spent many hours in the Missouri outdoors bow-hunting, wing-shooting quail, and fishing for crappie on Truman Lake, and have long been fascinated by the splendor of Missouri forests and waterways. During those times outside I was able to consider and imagine different scenarios for the Wyatt Storme series. Thunder Storme is one example of that reflection.
Having a brother, Lt. James P. Ripley (retired), who was a career State Trooper gains me an insight into the world of crime I would not otherwise have. I have researched and met with other officers in different agencies (including Sheriff’s offices, Deputies, City police officers, DEA, etc.) and through my own research I learned that one of the most hazardous law enforcement jobs in America is Conservation Agent or Game Warden. This wildlife protection job requires a high degree of physical training as the Wildlife/Game Warden will be walking and hiking rugged terrain, crossing rain-swollen creeks and rivers, while hunting down poachers or participating in rescue operations. At times they will even have to fight for their lives against armed men. Conservation agents and Game Wardens are killed more often than other badged agencies. “Statistically, since 1979 1.8 wardens (conservation/wildlife officers) have been killed on the job vs. every CHP officers.” (Bob Orange, VP California Game Wardens Association in a May 16, 2006 ESPN article). These men and women Wildlife officers are jeopardized by the fact that they are alone in the wilderness and the people they are arresting are armed—and the culprits know there will be no witnesses.
I have my setting as character and I substitute Wyatt and Chick in place of the Game Warden, and adopt that danger for my duo. The beauty of the Missouri Ozarks may seem an ironic setting for homicide but Sherlock Holmes takes a less romantic view of pastoral settings, “. . . the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there. They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” (Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”.)
So now, I have Wyatt Storme and Chick Easton, alone against massed forces in the Ozark forests where tourism dollars are being aggressively, even murderously, sought. Additionally, a relatively new industry has evolved in the Show-Me State—Casino gambling—one of the last and most lucrative cash businesses in America. As my brother, Lt. Ripley, once told me, “Anywhere there is cash business you have organized crime.” Every day Missouri Legislators are lobbied to allow more casinos in venues in new locations. Missouri Law does not allow land-based casinos so there is ‘gold in them thar lakes and rivers.’
Thunder Storme evolves from an isolated incident on an R and R fishing trip to a full blown turf war between The KC Mob and the shadowy Dixie Mafia with our heroes caught in the middle. Wyatt Storme and Chick Easton are two men who are scarred by foreign wars, sunburnt by the glare of life and do not have the ability to back down when pushed. Wyatt and Chick share a sentient bond and both are offended by the assassination of a young woman in their care.
The Missouri lake areas are dealing with the flux of demographic change and are projected to generate billions of dollars in the next few years. In the Spring and Summer the lake population swells with ranchers, farmers, professional anglers, vacationers, seasonal residents, retirees, millionaires and entrepreneurs looking to relax or graft onto the money tree. In the midst of this boom of wealth there are yet those who are living in abject poverty, without running water and electricity.
And yet, there remains this stunning isolation where danger lurks crouched and watching through reptilian eyes.
Enter Wyatt Storme and Chick Easton, who attract danger the way light attracts moths. There is a squall brewing at the lake and its name is Wyatt Storme . . . and suddenly my imagination lit up like a stuck match in an Ozark cave and I had a book on my hands.
All I had to do was write it.