That piece of advice is usually attributed to Mark Twain. Writing what you know is useful, but it’s limiting. As writers and readers, we don’t want limits. I find that I work better if I add two sentences to the quote: If you don’t know, find out. The search will lead you in all sorts of directions.
As the author of 19 books and a dozen short stories, I’ve found out some interesting things and traveled in many directions.
My latest book, Death Above the Line, is the fourth in my historical mystery series, which features protagonist Jill McLeod and the train known as the California Zephyr (the original, not the Amtrak version). The books are set in the early 1950s and Jill was introduced to mystery readers in Death Rides the Zephyr, followed by Death Deals a Hand and The Ghost in Roomette Four.
Jill is the only female member of the train crew, something like the train equivalent of a stewardess. Other rail lines had similar roles and called them by different names. On the California Zephyr, they were known as Zephyrettes.
I decided a Zephyrette would be a perfect sleuth. After all, her job was to make sure the passengers had a wonderful journey and that involved being observant, ready to solve problems as soon as they happened, if not before. Zephyrettes had to be intelligent and resourceful, and my protagonist Jill is all of that.
Write what you know. Well, I didn’t know much about Zephyrettes and I had to find out what it was like to ride the rails on the California Zephyr, both as a passenger and a member of the crew.
I’m writing about the original California Zephyr, not the Amtrak Version. The old California Zephyr (CZ) was sometimes called the Silver Lady, because of its sleek stainless-steel cars. The CZ began in March 1949, created in the heyday of luxurious train travel after World War II. It was a joint operation of three railroads—the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q), the Denver & Rio Grande Western (D&RGW), and the Western Pacific (WP)—with two trains daily, one westbound from Chicago, the other eastbound from Oakland, California.
CB&Q locomotives and crews operated the train between Chicago and Denver, where the D&RGW took over. From Salt Lake City west, it was the WP. The last stop was the Oakland Mole, a two-story train shed on the bay shore, where passengers bound for San Francisco would board ferries. For payroll purposes, the Zephyrettes were considered WP employees.
There was a lot I didn’t know, but I found out. I used all sorts of resources—books, articles, casting my net on the Internet. The research libraries at railroad museums in California and Colorado provided a trove of information. I also rode on trains and climbed around on railroad cars. I even drove a locomotive!
Best of all were the personal contacts—rail enthusiasts I met on several train trips, people who own and restore private rail cars, and the Zephyrettes themselves. I discovered that two retired Zephyrettes lived in the area, and one of them had worked on the trains in the early 1950s. One evening I took them to dinner, started my recorder, listened to them talk for over two hours. Oh, what stories I heard! Especially the one about the clandestine poker games in the baggage car. Invaluable!
Zephyrette Jill McLeod rides the rails on the California Zephyr, but in Death Above the Line, she’s on a movie set, playing a scripted version of her real-life role. This temporary stint as an actress would be fun—if it weren’t for the emotions and conflicts swirling around the cast and crew. Secrets and hidden agendas abound. And nobody likes the visiting studio executive. When someone winds up dead, Jill takes on the role of detective. Can she expose the killer before the real-life villain catches up with her?
Janet Dawson is the author of two mystery series. The first features Oakland, California private eye Jeri Howard. The first book in the series, Kindred Crimes, won the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America contest for Best First Private Eye novel and was nominated for several awards. Jeri usually sleuths in California. Her territory is the Bay Area, but she ranges farther afield, heading for Monterey and San Luis Obispo in Don’t Turn Your Back on the Ocean, and Sonoma County in Bit Player and Cold Trail. The thirteenth book in the series, The Devil Close Behind, finds Jeri even farther from home, as a vacation in New Orleans turns into a case.
Janet has also written four historical mysteries set in the early 1950s. The California Zephyr series features protagonist Jill McLeod, who is a Zephyrette, the only female member of the crew of the sleek streamliner that runs between the Bay Area and Chicago. Her job is to see to the passengers’ needs and be aware of any problems that interfere with a smooth journey. Problems such as murder! Jill began sleuthing in Death Rides the Zephyr, which was followed by Death Deals a Hand and The Ghost in Roomette Four. Now arriving in the station is Death Above the Line. Jill, who has been roped into playing a Zephyrette in a film noir, finds yet another body.
Other publications include her suspense novel, What You Wish For, a novella, But Not Forgotten, and numerous short stories, including Shamus nominee “Slayer Statute” and Macavity winner “Voice Mail.”
Janet recently finished a novel titled The Sacrificial Daughter, which will be published in January 2021. She has just started a historical novel.
Find out more about Janet and her work and sign up for her newsletter at:
Altruistic motivations aside, one of the reasons many of us chose police-work as a profession was the unpredictable nature of the job. Each day presents new and differing challenges; one shift might be filled with mind numbing reports while the next might involve ducking punches trying to quell a bar brawl. Business professionals are not usually going to find themselves involved in a physical altercation with a customer. Yet, such confrontations are almost a given in police work, more so depending upon the number of drinking establishments your town happens to have. In an officer’s career, most of these fights usually blend into the tapestry of innumerable, long forgotten calls for service, traffic stops and arrests. That said, there are always some fights that you never forget.
Swing shift briefing this particular afternoon was unremarkable save for a warning about not using our flashlights in place of our batons. Apparently, a not so happy “camper” was suing officers of a Southern California department for doing just that. I filed that tidbit away in the back of my mind, thinking it would never be of importance, before heading out to patrol my assigned beat, on the east side of town. By the time Graveyard shift hit the streets later that night (around 2200 -10:00 PM) I was buried in reports; since it was the early 1980’s, we actually had to write our reports by putting pencil/pen to paper. This is the less than glamorous facet of police work seldom, if ever, portrayed by Hollywood fiction which in reality, typically makes up the larger part of an officer’s day.
Our patrol cars were our offices and we would have to park somewhere within our beat to complete our paperwork so that we were available to handle any calls. Back then, a favorite spot to park and write was an old abandoned gas station at the corner of East Washington and South McDowell Boulevard. I had parked facing west, directly across from the “I Forgot Its Name” restaurant and bar, which was nestled in the middle of a Best Western Motel complex.
I had been writing for about an hour or so, my clipboard stuffed with reports yet to be approved by my sergeant. I was engrossed in some residential burglary report that had no leads, when the sound of a man yelling broke my concentration. I could tell, without even looking, that it was the type of howl made by somebody having consumed a snoot-full of booze. I just knew that he was probably going to require my attention, putting me further behind in completing my paperwork. I grudgingly peered out the front windshield in time to see a middle-aged man stagger over to a shopping cart that someone had abandoned in the parking lot. Clearly unaware of my presence and for reasons known only to him, this likely intoxicated clown proceeds to push the cart right into the street where it rolled to a stop in the middle of the far right lane, posing a hazard to traffic.
At almost the same time, Officer Dave Port happened to be making a right turn from East Washington onto South McDowell and witnessed what I had just seen. Dave got on his patrol car’s public address system and ordered this inebriated moron to pull the cart back out of the street. Neither of us was especially pleased with his response, which was in sign language and involved a contemptuous display of his middle finger. I fired up my patrol car and drove across the street to join Dave, who by then had pulled into the parking and removed the cart from the street.
By the time I got out of my car, Dave was in the process of explaining to “inebriated moron” that he was going to get a rather costly citation for causing a traffic hazard. Not surprisingly, he responded in a less than pleasant manner, giving both of us another emphatic, “Fuck you!” only this time, verbally and rather loudly, too. He turned to walk away as Dave and I looked at each other in disbelief. I stepped in front, blocking his withdrawal as Dave told him that he was under arrest for disorderly conduct. It should go without saying that “inebriated moron” was not having any of that and whirled around, quite obviously prepared to fight. I grabbed one of his arms, intending to apply
a wristlock, when another man came running toward us from between some parked cars. Without a word, he proceeded to shove me away from the first subject. Speaking with a heavy German accent and his breath laced with the unmistakable odor of alcoholic beverages, this new player demanded to know what we were doing with his brother. Given that we were now facing two drunken combative morons, Dave notified dispatched we needed more help.
I tried to explain to our newest “friend” that we were arresting his brother for pushing the shopping cart into the street, creating a traffic hazard and for public intoxication. I had already decided to arrest him once we got some more help, figuring for the moment, a modicum of discretion was the best course of action. Naturally, as Murphy’s Law is wont to do, he swung a balled up fist at me catching me with a glancing blow to my shoulder. The fight was on, Dave grappling with one brother and me with the other. Somehow, Dave had managed to use his portable radio and told whoever was coming to help us, to step up his response to “Code Three” – with emergency lights and siren. This in and of itself was a sign to other officers, that we were undoubtedly in some “deep Kimchi”.
An instant later, I unexpectedly found myself fighting with not one but two men. My first thought was that Dave had somehow lost control of the idiot who had caused all of this. That was until I saw that he was also fighting with two men. What started out to be a simple “routine” arrest for public intoxication had turned into a donnybrook and we were outnumbered two to one. Dave and I both had the same disquieting thought; where were these guys coming from and how many more were going to join the fracas?
I had already taken a couple of well-placed body shots when I managed to get my hand on the microphone clipped to my uniform shirt’s epaulet and called a “Code Twenty” meaning that we needed any and all help we could get, immediately if not sooner. Just as I heard dispatch sounding the alert tones over the radio, someone knocked the microphone from my shoulder and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground beneath two attackers. From out of the corner of my I caught a brief glimpse of a third person running towards me. That “Oh Shit!” moment quickly turned to relief when this person tackled one of the two atop me and pulled him off. For the moment, I was back to fighting one on one.
In the ensuing struggle, I managed to get on top of my suspect but unfortunately, the jackass was then lying on his hands and arms, making it impossible for me to handcuff him. I yelled at him to put out his hands, though at this point, I knew it was a futile request. I upped the use of force ante pulling out my trusty can of Mace, which is essentially liquid tear gas, and gave him a generous dose in his face. Unfortunately, the Mace did not work as advertised and he still refused to bring his arms out from underneath him or cooperate in any manner whatsoever.
I reached for my baton and discovered it had popped out of the holder on my equipment belt; so much for that option. It finally dawned on me that I was holding my police issue flashlight in my right hand. It was with a great sense of irony that I looked at the flashlight, then the suspect’s head, then the flashlight. I quickly figured that it was probably an incredibly bad idea to smack him in the head with said flashlight, given the warning we just received in briefing; however, the good Lord knows just how badly I wanted to do just that at that very moment.
Then, the welcomed sound of wailing and yelping sirens piercing the night, converging upon us from what seemed like every direction, finally penetrated my consciousness.
The cavalry had arrived! In a matter of seconds, the restaurant parking lot and part of South McDowell Boulevard filled with patrol cars from not only Petaluma Police but also Sonoma County Sheriff and the California Highway Patrol. The sounds of more than a dozen police car radios echoed off the surrounding buildings, which were awash in a kaleidoscope of flashing blue and red colors.
A couple of officers helped me convince my subject to conclude that it was in his best interests that he let me handcuff him. As one of the other officers led him off to one of the waiting patrol cars, I looked around the chaotic scene and noticed someone in street clothes assisting some officers in cuffing my other assailant. As it turned out, he was an off-duty California Correctional Officer who happened to be driving by and saw that we needed help. He was the person who tackled one of my assailants.
Within minutes, all four were in handcuffs and on their way to the station for booking before transport to Sonoma County Jail. That’s when we learned they were all brothers, living in the San Francisco area, though they were originally from Germany which explained the accents.
As has previously been mentioned on “Just-the-Facts Ma’am”, during these kinds of adrenaline fuel incidents, our perception of time is altered. For me, the wait for help to arrive seemed interminable, yet the entire confrontation from start to finish lasted no more than four and a half minutes. I’m not sure how long it was before I finally felt the adrenaline bleeding away only to be replaced by an overwhelming feeling of fatigue. Both Dave and I had torn, tattered uniforms, in addition to an assortment of cuts, scrapes and bruises; Dave had torn cartilage between several ribs while I had a couple of badly bruised ones.
Now, had this been an episode of Dragnet or Adam-12, this would be the point where the fate of the four suspects was revealed. In keeping with that spirit, some names have been changed to protect the guilty. The District Attorney, in and for the County of Sonoma, accepted the following plea agreement for the four Deutschland Brothers. By each brother pleading guilty to two counts of misdemeanor “Battery upon a Police Officer” and two counts of “Resisting Arrest and Interfering with an Officer”, the DA would dismiss the felony battery charges and request no jail time upon successful completion of 5 years probation. The guilty plea rendered moot the lawsuit they filed against the City of Petaluma for alleged police misconduct. It also meant that the counter-suit Dave and I filed against each of the four brothers was successfully settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. The Chief of Police wrote the off-duty California Correctional Officer a letter of commendation for coming to our aid.
Apologies to the band Fun. and their wonderful song,Some Nights
Check out Just the Facts, Ma’am on Wednesday for the continuation of Hal Collier’s Ramblings on calls for service–next comes part one of 5150’s. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that term, it’s the California Welfare & Institutions Code for mentally impaired. Get ready for more stories!