There is a small, weird part of my industry called “spy photography.” Just a handful of people do it, and they make their living taking pictures of prototype cars undergoing testing, and then selling those images to magazines, website, and others. When I was in Detroit years ago for the Meadow Brook Concours, while driving down Woodward Avenue I came up with my concept: What would happen if one of those photographers took a picture of something they really shouldn’t have taken a picture of, and then within hours their life turned upside down and they had to figure out what was going on and why someone was trying to kill them?
To research this I went out with the best spy photographer in the business (shown above, in action), which was one of the most interesting weeks of my life. I have talked with numerous people in and outside the auto industry to make sure this book is authentic, and continued research on trends I see happening in the world of energy. Though this may be a work of fiction, is has to be right!
If this sounds intriguing, I hope you enjoy this excerpt:
The last place Charlie Weber expected to die was in an Aston Martin in the Mojave Desert.
He was driving a hand-built prototype undergoing a secretive procedure used by automobile manufacturers called hot environmental testing. The process is done during the summer months under the blazing sun in the world’s harshest locations, allowing engineers to analyze the durability and quality of prototype cars, yet-to-be-seen production models, and their components.
Charlie’s job was to push the Aston to its breaking point. What would cause the engine to grenade, the transmission to seize, or the brakes to fry? The hellish conditions can be just as brutal on a car’s interior, baking the seats, dashboards, and knobs so they sometimes melt.
And occasionally—especially when an all-new technology is tried—the entire car burns to the ground and chars the road with a large black spot.
Charlie knew all that.
Twenty minutes earlier he was traveling at one hundred ten miles an hour when the Aston passed over one such burn mark covering two thirds of an empty road on the desert valley’s perimeter. Exceeding one hundred was child’s play to him—for over fifty years two key elements of his resume had been speed, and how a car reacted to it.
In the passenger seat was Max, an engineer who had recently joined Aston Martin, brought in with the highest recommendations. Max stared intently at the open computer nestled in his lap, its screen flickering as he monitored readouts from the two hundred or so thermocouples scattered in and around the car.
Inside Aston these small sensors are known as “the green wires,” and they looked like an alien’s anatomy, tiny metallic capillaries running across the matte black carbon fiber weave found on the interior’s panels, the dashboard, and the seat backs. Thermocouples measure the temperature of everything associated with a car—the engine and radiator, interior components such as arm rests and air vents, even the exhaust tips and where they might touch the car’s body. Aston had to be certain every component and system functioned perfectly in all conditions up to one hundred thirty degrees.
Especially in this unique prototype.
There was no room for error.
Charlie considered himself a good judge of character, and he saw engineers as a curious breed. Throughout his lengthy career with Aston Martin, first on the racetrack, then as a test driver, most had been geeky types who relied on graphs and charts for data, and those numbers and lines ruled their lives. In the old days, a bit more than twenty years ago, the geeks stayed out the car.
Then came the advent of computing power and telemetry so they now rode with the test drivers. Most engineers were good blokes who talked about what they did that weekend, what kind of girls they liked, what the family was up to, or other cars.
Max wasn’t like that at all.
He just didn’t talk. Period.
Taciturn barely scratched his somber surface, and he showed little to no emotion. Ever. How could one be that way in the presence of an object as evocative as an Aston Martin, let alone one never seen before?
To Charlie, silence meant you were hiding something.
He had no idea how close he was to the truth.
After three days of unsuccessfully trying to engage Max in some semblance of conversation the two men mostly rode without speaking. But that didn’t prevent Charlie from trying to get a reaction from time to time, and his favorite method was unleashing the vee-twelve engine’s eight hundred and twenty horsepower at the right moment.
As they approached a long sweeping corner Charlie flicked a paddle behind the steering wheel three times, the car downshifting into third gear. He brushed the brake pedal with his left foot, and the prototype’s speed smoothly dropped below ninety, then eighty.
After the turn a long straight beckoned, the pavement shimmering under the heat. No cars loomed on the horizon. Charlie pinned the accelerator to the floor and the engine’s deep growl overwhelmed the cabin. The car’s nose immediately lifted and Max’s head snapped back from the thrust, the engineer’s gaze struggling to stay on the computer screen.
Charlie tugged the upshift paddle and watched the speedometer rapidly climb. One ten. One twenty. One thirty, now one hundred forty. He eased off the accelerator and the Aston stayed at that speed, hunkered down on the road. The tachometer danced near its eight-thousand rpm redline, the maximum speed the engine should turn for an extended period of time.
Max looked up from his computer screen. “I got what I needed,” he said over the bellowing engine and throaty exhaust roar. “Why don’t we pull over and I’ll do a data download. I could also use a breath of fresh air.”
Got him, Charlie thought. He is a living, breathing human, after all.
“Works for me,” he replied. “I need to take a leak, any way. We’ll stop at Painter’s Cove. It’s not too far away.”
Max said nothing, his eyes not straying from the computer screen.
Painter’s Cove was Charlie’s favorite spot in the Mojave. He discovered the location back in the early 1990s during Aston Martin’s Project NPX hot environmental testing program. That was the first time the small British company used the procedure so extensively, and the resulting DB7 paved the way for Aston to be where it was today, selling several thousand, rather than several dozen, cars a year.
Charlie’s eyes flickered at the memory. That program may have been one of the most important in Aston’s history, but it paled in comparison to what was now being analyzed. So much more was at stake than the launch of a new car model, or the survival and prosperity of an admired firm.
Very few people knew that, Charlie being one. His unique talents were key to this project’s success.
He downshifted and turned up a side road. He floored the accelerator and the Aston leapt forward, shooting toward the first curve a mile away.
Painter’s Cove lay on top a bajada near the base of the mountains bordering the eastern side of the desert. Millions of years ago volcanic upheaval had modeled the earth into an undulating, craggy multi-colored landscape that seemed to be an alien world. It transfixed Charlie from the moment he found it.
The Cove’s parking area was surrounded by the mounds of the vibrantly colored earth and random rocks, allowing prototype cars to remain out of sight from prying eyes and invasive cameras. More than once Charlie and the Aston support team had come here for heat soaks—extended periods where cars were left standing in the midday sun, all windows closed, the interior sizzling away to see how materials would react to the Mojave’s oven-like heat.
He was looking forward to arriving at the Cove. They had been driving nonstop for several hours so Max could gather more data, and he wanted to stretch his legs and relieve himself while viewing the vast desert expanse. Peeing in the great outdoors was one of the simple pleasures in life.
Charlie smiled at the thought, not knowing it would be his last ever piss.