Thursday, March 3, 2011

On the origins of THE ALCHEMIST - Part I

The story arc of THE ALCHEMIST takes place in southern California … specifically in San Diego County, (where I grew up and went to UCSD my freshman year) and Riverside County, where I transferred to UCR … met Gena … talked her into getting married when I graduated and had a job … finally graduated with a degree in Biochemistry … and then joined the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy sheriff, criminalist and CSI immediately thereafter … mostly because I had come to realize that I really didn't like biochemical research, and I needed a job!

That first year of marriage and law enforcement/CSI/forensics training was a memorably wonderful and fascinating part of my life … which is another way of saying that it had almost nothing to do to with the jarring emotions and edgy experiences that resulted in what is arguably the most intensely dark and violent fiction book I’ve written to date.

I would acquire those literary ‘incentives’ shortly after I made the fateful decision to accept LA State College professor Tony Longhetti’s offer (I was attending night school in nearby Los Angeles to get a MS degree in criminalistics) of an identical job at the neighboring and much larger San Bernardino County Sheriff’s crime lab where he was the lab director.

The other four criminalists at the SBSO crime lab were older and far more experienced at the real-life down-and-dirty version of CSI … which meant they were absolutely delighted to have a new young criminalist on board.  Especially one who actually wanted to go out in San Bernardino’s 20,000 square miles of hot/dry desert in the middle of the night to work violent and bloody crime scenes involving outlaw bikers, crazy drug dealers, sociopaths, freaks, and a wide range of run-of-the-mill idiot criminals.

It didn’t take long for the boss to make me the primary ‘go-out-and-get-tired-and-dirty’ CSI for the desert scenes … as well as the lab liaison to the Vice/Narcotics detail … all of which led the Vice/Narcotics Sergeant to make me an offer that I really couldn’t refuse.

It seemed that they were investigating a series of illicit drug labs supposedly making methamphetamine out in the Mohave desert; but their snitch wasn’t being all that helpful in getting them to the lab locations … so what they really needed was a young criminalist who was unknown to the local drug dealers (that is, someone who hadn’t testified against them in court) and who was willing to pose as an illegal drug chemist long enough to ‘get inside the organization.’

In retrospect, this wasn’t exactly the smartest decision I’ve made in my life; but in my own defense, I was 23 years old, new to the job, a self-admitted adrenaline-junkie … and a guy -– not necessarily the best combo for rational decision-making.  So what could I say except “sure, why not?” without really thinking about it too much.  I asked for and got permission from my boss (after he’d finished rolling his eyes, shaking his head, and asking me if I really knew what I was getting myself into) … assured Gena that the narcs would look out after me … and only got a little concerned when the narcs asked me if I actually knew how to make methamphetamine.

I think they assumed that cooking 'speed' was something all chemistry students learned at college, probably in their freshman year; but I must have missed that lecture.  After confessing that I didn’t know – and then learning that all of the other criminalists at the lab didn’t know either (or so they hurriedly claimed) – I asked for permission to contact my former organic chemistry professor at UCR who was 1) a brilliant organic chemist, and 2) a pretty hip guy who liked to use illicit drug structures in his lectures.  The vice/narc sergeant said “sure, no problem, just don’t tell him too much about the operation.”

And yes, this is precisely what authors call ‘fore-shadowing.’

So I made an appointment to see Dr. Phillip Radlick (I’m pretty sure he didn’t remember me – I was a ‘B’ student at best – but he proved to be an amiable fellow in agreeing to see me), drove out to his office and –- as per my recent training – properly identified myself by showing him my shiny new deputy sheriff’s badge and credentials.

I can still remember, to this day, the look of what I now believe was shock and disbelief on his face … a look that, in retrospect, grew more haunted when I went on to explain why I hoped he could teach me some ‘magic tricks’ --- so that I could pass myself off as an illegal drug chemist to get myself a job in an underground lab out in the desert.  After hesitating for a few seconds, he said “I suppose I could do that, but I’ll have to get permission from the Department Chairman.”  He then left his office (where there was, I’m pretty sure, a perfectly functional phone), came back about ten minutes later, and said “okay, let’s do it.”

So, for the next four weeks, I met with Radlick on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at his lab where he proceeded to teach me innovative ways of making crude methamphetamine with things like tin foil as a catalyst.  Looking back, he seemed to be having fun coming up with obscure methods of synthesizing what he constantly reminded me was really just a simple bit of amine chemistry.

At the end of the four weeks, he shook my hand and wished me well with what I probably mistook to be a slightly worried look on his face.

Later that evening, dressed in my ‘poor university grad student’ outfit (and minus badge, gun, radio, and any real-life ID or personal effects, because I could expect to be searched), the vice/narc sergeant and I drove out into the middle of the Mohave desert to meet up with the other narcs and the snitch -- who would be my introduction to a fellow he had previously described as a lousy chemist --- a older guy in way over his head, who was using Bunsen burners with ethyl ether (a seriously bad idea!) and coming up with lousy batches of meth, and thus desperately needed an assistant to help improve his product and keep up with the workload quota.

So there I am, hidden behind some very large rocks in star-lit darkness … wondering where I was going to find some electrical mantles to replace those Bunsen burners ASAP … while being reassured by the narcs that they'd try to keep an eye on me and that everything was going to work out just fine as we watched the snitch walk down a long sandy-dirt road toward a distant dark house where my ‘about-to-be-new-boss-in-desperate-need’ was supposedly waiting … and I finally started to realize that this actually might not be such a good idea after all.

To be continued … 

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