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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Smallest Step Can Be the Largest Leap

Sometimes it's the smallest step, the one that is thought to be the most insignificant, that can lead to the largest leap.

Though I'd always wanted to be a novelist, I fell into the world of computing long before the invention of PC hard drives, laptops, flash cards, and email and the Internet as we know it today. I'd founded and operated two computer companies with customers that included the CIA, United States Secret Service, the Department of Defense, and local law enforcement agencies.

But one day I received a phone call from a trucking company, who wanted me to automate their deliveries. After developing the initial program, I was called into the boardroom and asked to hide their kickbacks.

The men proceeded to explain to me how they made under-the-table payments to purchasing agencies in return for the award of contracts. Their current system tracked the money, which was dangerous in the event that federal agents raided their offices and seized their computers. What they wanted me to do was develop a new computer program that would track the payments for their own records, but completely obliterate the information afterward, removing any audit trails.

I decided it was too risky for me to jump up and try to run; after all, I joined the school band to get out of gym classes. So I pretended not to notice that they were asking me to commit a crime, and I proceded to gather the information I'd need to write this program. And I found out in that moment that people will tell a programmer anything.

They provided me with a complete set of their books, showing where the money was going and who it was being paid to - at the tune of $30,000 a week. As I drove away with printouts and a CD filled with incriminating evidence, I was certain I would be stopped somewhere along the rural, winding roads to my home. And the next morning, someone would find my head in a ditch.

Of all the programmers they could have confided in, I was the world's worst. My father was a retired FBI agent. And like a dutiful daughter, I went straight home and called Dad. After listening to my story, he said he'd identified at least seven federal offenses. I was put in touch with the local FBI office, who arrived at my home within the hour and gathered up the evidence.

But I couldn't simply walk away. I knew too much.

So for the next year and a half, I provided as much information possible to the FBI while I continued to work with the trucking company. It was the most stressful time of my life. I couldn't tell anyone what I was doing, though my local police department was aware of my status and were presumably keeping a close eye on me. One police chief asked me if I was afraid I'd find a horse's head in my bed. To which I replied that I'd never thought of it, but now that he'd planted the seed, I was.

The years passed and I was extricated from the trucking company. Trying to make lemonade out of lemons, I decided it was time for me to write that suspense/thriller I'd always dreamed about. The experts always said "write what you know" and I knew this crime inside and out, backwards and forwards.

Kickback took two years to write. I changed the location so it wouldn't identify the specific trucking company. It would be too easy for the main character, Sheila, to have an FBI father so I made her an orphan with no one to turn to. When she contacted the FBI, she didn't yet have the evidence and they didn't believe her. But when she tried to extricate herself from them, the bad guys pursued her - making it clear that her life depended upon her cooperation.

It took another two years for the book to be published. I started with the big guys, accummulated the pile of rejections from them, and worked my way down to the medium-sized publishers and small publishers until eventually I found a micro-publisher willing to publish the book.

As it was going into the market, I googled "trucking kickback scheme" just for the fun of it. What I found made my blood run cold. I had changed the location of the crime to the Washington, DC area, with the main character living in Old Town Alexandria - never realizing a trucking company was being prosecuted for a trucking-related kickback scheme identical to the one in my book. And at the very moment my book was released, their trial began - in Alexandria.

The marketing "arm" of the publisher wanted me to have the launch at the annual trucker's convention. Terrified, I replied, "But they'll kill me!" To which she replied, "Yes, but think of the book sales!"

I had the main character, Sheila, graduating from Vanderbilt University, never realizing that a now-former purchasing director had been prosecuted for a kickback scheme.

I didn't know whether to enter the witness protection program, flee the country, change my name, or all of the above.

In the end, I decided to tell my story. The first time I went public with the true story behind Kickback, I left the venue and headed for Interstate 81 in Virginia when a tractor-trailer came out of nowhere and avoided flattening my car by a thin coat of paint. I became the spokesperson for The Virginia Crime Stoppers Association, and some fantastic law enforcement officers began accompanying me on my speaking engagements and book signings.

In the end, the release of Kickback led to a new career for me. In 2002, the year it was released, my largest programming contract ended. They say in the publishing industry "never quit your day job" but my day job appeared to have quit me. So I went with the flow, writing The China Conspiracy (published in 2003 by a slightly larger publisher), followed by five more books in five more years.

I've been largely out of the computer industry since 2002, except for supporting causes I am passionate about.

I never dreamed it at the time, but that one seemingly insignificant phone call ultimately led to the leap from computer programmer to full-time novelist. And I'm loving every minute.