Thursday, March 31, 2011

On the origins of PREY - Part I

When I joined the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Division of Law Enforcement (LE) in 1979 to set up (I thought) a federal wildlife crime lab, I had a feeling that making a transition to working in wildlife law enforcement would give me a lot of new ideas for my fiction novels … and boy I was right.

The first few months in Washington DC went pretty much as expected: my first assigned task was to put together an evidence handling system (CSI, evidence preservation & collection, tags, forms, bags, etc.) for our agents and wildlife inspectors in the field … which they needed because LE was a relatively new entity, and which really wasn’t all that hard to do.

I just contacted the FBI crime lab director (a fellow I’d known for several years), asked him a complete set of the FBI’s evidence handling system (flow-charts, forms, tags, etc.) which he was more than happy to share … took one look at the hundreds of forms, charts and tags … proceeded to reduce it all down by a rough factor of ten (we only had about two hundred special agents compared to the FBI’s several thousand) … turned the much-simplified system over to our Training Branch then went to the Chief and then said “okay, got that done, when do we start building the lab?”

This was when I learned that 1) LE had no funding to construct a crime lab and hire staff; 2) it would be my job as the new Forensics Branch Chief to try to obtain the funding; and 3) oh, by the way, it’s illegal for a federal government employee to lobby Congress.


As might be expected, there are means by which such things happen [basically, I had to find non-governmental organizations (NGOs) willing to fight for our funding];  but, in the meantime, my boss decided that I needed to make myself useful within LE.  So until we actually got the funding for the lab, I would function as a ‘Technical Agent’, traveling about the country with badge, gun and CSI/surveillance gear assisting our special agents with their investigative problems.

My first trip was to Louisiana where I met up with a couple of our agents who were making plans to “check duck hunters” the next morning.  Would I like to go along?  You bet!

So there I was the next morning at the office, fully equipped with waterproof gear, badge, gun, CSI kit and Kevlar vest, much to the amusement of the two agents.

“You really going to wear that vest today?” one of them asked.

I’m sure I blinked.  “Yeah, of course I am, aren’t you?” I responded.

“Not to check a bunch of duck blinds,” the other agent laughed.  “Don’t think we’re going to get into too many fire fights with them good ‘ol boys today.”

“Which is a good thing,” the first agent explained, “because the average duck hunter around here could put a bullet between your eyes at a fifty yards with his little bitty snake gun, no problem … so that vest really wouldn’t help you much … not to mention it gets pretty hot and humid out here,” he added helpfully.

So I put my vest in the back of their vehicle, feeling kind of naked after 12 years of pretty insistent police training, rode with the agents out to the hunting area, and then went out with them to check hunters for ‘over-the-limits’ and shotgun ‘plugs’ (tubular magazine restrictors that prevent the hunters from having too many rounds in their shotguns, for you non-duck-hunters). And to my absolute disbelief, the agents proceeded to approach the armed hunters and engage with them cheerfully without ever disarming them!!

I have to add here that a significant part of my earlier ‘police’ training involved the presence of a weapon (knife or firearm) in the hands of a suspect, and how I should react to that weapon immediately if not sooner.  I had never, ever, been with a deputy sheriff or police officer who allowed a suspect to remain lethally armed for even a second … the basic option for said suspect being: drop the weapon now or die.

But this wasn’t ‘police’ work, as I quickly learned, and these duck hunters weren’t ‘suspects’ … or at least not in the sense that I understood the word ... and I really couldn’t do my job of helping them check hunters if I was going to keep on taking cover behind the nearest birdshot-resistant object every time we approached a new group of hunters. 

It was clear that if I was going to continue to go out in the field with our agents, I was going to have to quickly ‘unlearn’ a lot of deeply-burned-in police training.

I got an even more astounding lesson in wildlife law enforcement work at four o’clock the next morning, where I found myself in an actual southern Louisiana swamp with those same agents, in almost total darkness, waiting for the poachers to show up at 4:30-5:00AM so that they could get their illegal early shooting in before the law-abiding duck hunters showed up to start shooting at 6:00AM.

So there I was, squatting down in hip/waist deep water, not at all happy about having to keep a wary eye out for curious alligators and snakes, when it occurred to me to ask the obvious question: “so, what kind of felony is it to shoot a duck before the season starts?”

One of the agents chuckled softly and whispered “it’s not a felony, bud, just a misdemeanor.  All we’re going to do is give them a little violation notice.”

I was dumbfounded.

“You mean we’re sitting here in a [deleted] swamp, in the middle of the night, up to our ass in alligators and snakes, just to give some [deleted] a [deleted] ticket???”

“Shussh, not so loud, you’ll scare these guys off!” the agent whispered hurriedly.

Looking back, I think this was the moment that the idea for a new character began to crystallize in my head: a police homicide detective from San Diego named Henry Lightstone who is up in Alaska -- out of his jurisdiction and his comfort zone -- hunting for an outlaw motorcycle gang that had savagely beaten his partner when he unknowingly trips across a covert team of wildlife special agents focused on the same group of bad guys.

As I saw it, there were a lot of possibilities for Henry meeting up with a lot of interesting characters and getting himself in a lot of interesting trouble; but first, he was going to have to get used to doing things in a very different way.

To be continued …

Sunday, March 27, 2011

On the origins of CHEATER

The main ‘bad guy’ in CHEATER is a thoroughly warped and homicidal burglar who goes after his victims through the crawl spaces of their homes, cuts a trap door in the flooring, installs tiny hinges, razor-cuts through the carpeting, and then waits for them like a trap-door spider.

How did I get the idea for a character like that?

Well, early on in my career, when I was still learning the CSI ‘ropes’, I went out on a warrant search with three homicide investigators who were looking for a freak who had a nasty habit of hiding the bodies of his victims in the crawl spaces of old homes.  This guy was pretty elusive and the investigators didn’t have much to go on; but they’d received a tip on a location where he had supposedly lived for a few months, and the possibility that we might find a few more clues as to his identity and habits made the effort to get the warrant and the subsequent long drive worthwhile.

When we got to the residence – a creepy looking single story house that appeared to be sagging in all directions – the three investigators (two detectives and the homicide sergeant) entered the house and began their initial search while I began setting out and assembling my CSI gear.

I was still in the process of checking the strobe and loading a roll of 120 film into my primary camera when one of the detectives came back to the car and said they’d found something around the back of the house that they wanted me to see.

When I got back there, I found all three investigators standing around what looked like a very small hole in the concrete foundation wall that led into a crawl space under the house.  Following their request that I take a look, I got down into a prone position and shined my flashlight into the entryway.

What I saw was numbing.

To start with, the house had been built on top of a concrete foundation that looked like a checkerboard series of adjacent and very shallow 8-by-ten-foot pools formed by crisscrossing 4-inch wide concrete ‘walls’ that stuck up out of the ground about six inches.  At each wall intersection, a short piece of 4x4 post held up the house flooring that seemed to be sagging even worse than the external walls and roof.

It looked like it might be possible to pull yourself progressively through the roughly 8-inches of space between the series of internal concrete foundation walls and the sagging floor … if you didn’t mind the fact that you’d be pulling yourself through what looked like at least fifty years worth of light-impenetrable, dust- and insect-matted spider webs that appeared to fill all of the ‘open’ space as far as I could see.

Chillingly enough, it also appeared as if someone had done exactly that not  long ago … the ragged torn-webbing path heading toward what I assumed would be the far corner of the crawl space.

I remember my first thought being something to the effect of: “man, I’m sure glad I’m not going in there!”

I should explain here that my assumption that I wouldn’t be going in there was based on a perfectly logical and very-well-established division of labor during the serving of such search warrants.  The investigator’s job was to make sure the suspect wasn’t around (or to engage and deal with him if he was), and my job was to search for items of trace evidence in areas that had been previously cleared by the investigators.  While I was a deputy sheriff, armed with a .357 pistol and some presumably handy weaponless-control training; this guy really was a freak, and nobody would logically expect me to engage and try to deal with him … especially in such tight confines.
So I was still shining my flashlight beam into the crawl space with a calm sense of morbid curiosity when I heard the homicide sergeant say: “you’re going to have to go in there.”

I distinctly remember lunging to my feet and staring at the plain-clothed supervisor (with what I’m sure was a stunned and disbelieving look on my face) and asking in a choked voice “why me?”

It was a perfectly logical question, unfortunately followed by a perfectly logical answer: I would have to go in because none of the investigators could fit through the hole … two because of their shoulder size and one because of his gut.  I, on the other hand, was a skinny 165 pounds …

And no, there weren’t any other skinny 165 pound deputies or detectives within ready driving distance; or at least that’s what the homicide sergeant assured me was the case when I rapidly and not-quite-hysterically inquired.

Approximately ten minutes later, I was pulling myself through the hole and into the first shallow ‘pool’, staying as low to the ground as I could to avoid the innumerable rusty nails sticking down through the floor boards … my pistol in one hand and my flashlight in the other … scared out of my mind.

“Watch yourself,” the homicide sergeant suggested helpfully as I finally managed to get my entire body into the first spider-web-strewn pool, “he could still be down in there.”


I don’t know how long it took me to reach the far back corner of the crawl space, pulling myself through each successive slot of concrete-wall/sagging-floor space after making sure – as best I could – that there wasn’t anyone or anything in the next shallow ‘pool.’  It was probably only fifteen or twenty minutes, but it seemed like several hours … during which time it took pretty much all the mental powers I possessed to keep my mind tightly enclosed in a little imaginary walnut shell so that I wouldn’t start screaming.

By the time I got to the final corner ‘pool’, my entire body was covered by what looked like dozens of layers of dirty cob-webbing, and I could see an area in the next ‘pool’ to the left ---heading toward the next far corner of the crawl space – where it looked like something big had been dug up and pulled away.

I was still contemplating the pretty-much unthinkable idea of continuing my search toward that that next distant far corner when I happened to look around in my current location with my flashlight beam … and saw a huge spider walking across my lower leg toward my knee.

I almost shot it.

Fortunately, I didn’t shoot it … one, because I would have probably blown my kneecap off;  two, because I would have certainly blown out both of my eardrums; and three because the homicide guys probably would have started shooting in my general direction, thinking … well, Lord knows what they would have been thinking with all of the screaming and cussing that I would have undoubtedly been doing.

So I hit it with my flashlight instead … not realizing right away that it would have been a much better idea to have used the barrel of my pistol instead of the flashlight, because I missed the damned thing twice in the sudden darkness – giving myself a couple of nice bruises in the process --- before I finally switched weapons, gained visibility and smashed it.  Also drove my hand into several of the down-pointing nails in the process also, but that was going to be a minor issue of checking on my tetanus shot status at some later date as opposed to my pending coronary that was likely to happen at any moment.

I have no idea how long I stayed down there.  Could have been an hour, could have been more.  Basically it was just long enough to make sure that the freak -- or one of his unfortunate victims -- really wasn’t down there with me; with some ragged portion of my mind actually wanting him to be there so that I could shoot the SOB – a fair trade for the spider incident, if nothing else -- and bring the entire search to a rapid halt.

So much for the unbiased and emotionally uninvolved forensic point of view that us criminalists are supposed to bring to such operations.

We never did find the guy, at least not while I was employed with that Department; but I did come away from that nightmarish search with a deeply frightening idea for a fiction story tucked away in that little mental walnut shell.

… through the crawl spaces of their homes … cutting a trap door in the flooring … installing tiny hinges … razor-cutting through the carpeting … and then waiting for them like a trap-door spider.

Happy reading … :)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

On the origins of THE ALCHEMIST - Part III

The narc sergeant was absolutely correct, ‘cannabinol’ is the street slang term for tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the primary active ingredient in marijuana and its products … which was all he needed to hear to prosecute the dealer for ‘sales in lieu of.’
But there was an underlying chemistry problem: when THC decomposes, one of the decomposition products happens to be a non-restricted chemical structure named … (wait for it)
… ‘cannabinol.’
So the legality of the bust came down to one simple question: when the dealer described his drug as ‘cannabinol’ to the narcs, was he using the street slang term for an illegal drug, or the common name for perfectly legal chemical compound?
The narc sergeant was a little stunned by all of this; but he quickly decided that it would be my job to explain to the preliminary trial jury why the answer to that question was plainly obvious.
I assured him that I could do that, no problem; so he smiled and went away humming cheerfully to himself.
A week or so later, on a late Thursday afternoon, and just as I was getting ready to go home, the narc sergeant stopped by the lab to casually let me know that our busted dealer would have an expert witness testifying against me at the prelim trial the next day.
“Some former chemistry professor of yours,” he added indifferently.  “Some guy named Radlick.”
“Professor Phillip Radlick, from UC Riverside?” I asked in disbelief.
He shrugged.  “Yeah, I guess so.  Why, is that a problem?”
“No, no problem,” I replied reassuringly.  “Just curious.”
Which was not exactly the truth. In point of fact, I was more than a little stunned by the idea that I (the ‘B’ chemistry student at best) was going to be testifying against a guy who’d been honored as the youngest full professor of organic chemistry in the UC system.
Then I remembered how the defense expert deal worked.  It wouldn’t just be Radlick testifying against me … as a defense expert, he would be allowed to listen to my testimony and feed the defense attorney questions.
Oh, man …
It had been a long time since I’d crammed for a chemistry test, and I knew Radlick’s suggested questions wouldn’t be something simple like “what is THC?” and “what is cannabinol?”  It was much more likely that he’d want me to draw out the chemical structures for the jury.
I looked up the chemical structure for THC.  Fifty-three carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms arranged in a three-dimensionally complex three-ring structure.  Cannabinol: basically the same thing with four less hydrogen atoms and a couple more double bonds in one of the rings.  The several possible analogs of PCP were just as bad if not worse.
It was going to be a long night.
The next day, dressed in coat and tie, I walked into court … and found myself shaking hands with a similarly-dressed Radlick who immediately let everyone within earshot know how proud he was of me -- one of his former students who’d made good use of his college education.  “I’m sure that everything Ken testifies to will be factually correct,” he assured the prosecutor.  “I’m just going to offer an alternate point of view.”
I won’t go into the painful details of the testimony.  Suffice it to say that I managed to get through the THC and cannabinol structures okay, but then my mind went blank when I was asked to draw ‘cyclohexane’ (the simplest organic ring structure, consisting of six carbon atoms connected together in a circle with a couple of hydrogen atoms attached to each one).
I remember Radlick smiling sympathetically (while probably thinking he might have been a little too generous in giving me that ‘B’ back at UCR), whereupon he proceeded to teach the jury the basics organic chemistry in about fifteen minutes.
It was a brilliant lecture (it was all I could do not to take notes), and the jury really seemed to eat it up.  At the break, the prosecutor quickly went into a private discussion with the defense attorney, leaving the narc sergeant, the dealer and I standing around talking with each other (it’s often like that … cops and criminals forming these amiable if not exactly friendly relationships, both sides knowing full well that there will be other days).
And I have this wonderful memory of the narc sergeant saying something to the effect of  “hey, man, tell you what, you give up your chemist and I’ll talk to the DA about cutting you a good deal” … and an equally wonderful memory of the dealer’s face as he started to break out in a wide grin, but then turned and hurriedly walked away.
And no, the possibility that Radlick might be the originator of the thiopene analog never occurred to either of us.  Some days are like that in law enforcement.
The dealer ‘walked’ shortly thereafter on a plea to much-lesser charges, Radlick and I shook hands amiably, and that was the last time I saw or even thought about him until …
[I’d stop here, like any good tension-building author, and add another "to be continued"; but I think I've strung this out long enough, and you’re undoubtedly getting the idea by now]
… the fateful day we (the HBPD) agreed to play a touch football game against the local high school varsity team as a community-spirit-building event.  It didn’t seem like all that bad of an idea because 1) we were all bigger and older than the high school kids; 2) we all still thought of ourselves as being just as fit and conditioned as we’d been in high school;  and 3) we had a lot of hand-to-hand combat training that the kids didn’t have.
In point of fact, it was a terribly bad idea because 1) we were bigger (read ‘fatter’) and older and much more out of shape that they were; 2) the refs weren’t about to let us use any hand-to-hand combat techniques in a touch football game; and 3) the local paramedics upped the macho ante by publically offering to medevac any injured cop to the hospital free of charge, and parking their bright red ambulance in a prominently spot right next to the playing field.
I’ll skip the gory details.  Suffice it to say that we lost the game 44 to nothing, with seven of us being medevac’d out (I was number 7).  And the chief was quoted in the local paper as thinking about firing all of us and hiring the kids to patrol the city.  Community spirit was quickly at an all-time high.
My memory of those next twenty four hours is a bit hazy.  I do kind-of remember one of the ER-crashing narcs handing me a cold can of beer while the distracted ER doctor was using a wooden mallet to pound a big drain needle in my knee … and the not-really-angry head ER nurse yanking it out of my hand and shooing them all out … but that could have just as easily been my imagination because my brain was fully engaged with a very effective pain-killer known as Percodan.
Wonderful stuff, Percodan … as long as you don’t really need to be thinking about anything.
So it wasn’t until the next day (or two, or three, or five, I’m not really sure) that I actually thought about much of anything … that being when my dear wife arrived at the hospital for a visit with a newspaper in her hand.
“Here,” she said, handing me the newspaper, “you’ve got to read this.”
I remember having trouble focusing on the small print, but the headline letters were pretty easy to read:
Former UCR Professor arrested behind an 80-some-million-dollar PCP Lab … or something like that.
Ever had all the dominos start to fall in the back of your head … one after the other … click, click, click?
The DEA brought Radlick to trial in Federal Court and lost.  They tried a second time, lost again … after which Radlick disappeared, and none of us have seen or heard from him since.
He could be living in luxury on some beautiful island, far from our legal grasp, because he probably made a lot of money … or he could be long dead and buried because he knew far too much about some very dangerous people.
I should be clear here that I don’t know, for a fact, that Radlick had anything to do with those franchised meth labs out in the Mohave desert … or with that one lab being suddenly shut down before I could go in … or anything whatsoever to do with the thiopene analog of PCP sales in Huntington Beach. And, perhaps more importantly, from a self-interest point of view, I have no way of knowing if he chose to shut down that Mohave lab so I could walk away safely, instead of letting me walk into some kind of nasty ambush.
But I think he did.
I was adamant about wanting to write The Alchemist (instead of Balefire II) because I wanted to say ‘hi’ to Radlick … and maybe ‘thanks’, or whatever might have been appropriate … so I did, with Bantam’s grudging approval, hoping that he’d trip across the book one day and try to make contact.
But it never happened.
So I’m going to give it one more try with this blog, hoping that my former organic chemistry professor is still alive and maybe intellectually curious enough to engage with this ‘new-fangled’ social media stuff.  If so, I just might hear from him some day after all.  I hope so.  Because if nothing else, he inspired the writing of one of my better dark and edgy fiction stories … so it only seemed fair to add a medieval-legend-inspired exotic love interest for my fictional alchemist, to help take his mind off his troubles.
I hope he enjoys the story.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

On the origins of THE ALCHEMIST - Part II

And all things considered, it probably wouldn’t have been a good idea for me to have actually gone into that grimy make-shift meth lab that night and engaged with the idiot chemist who had somehow managed not to kill himself --- yet --- using ethyl ether and an open flame to ‘cook’ illicit drugs.
He and I would have probably gotten into a heated argument over basic lab safety practices that, in retrospect, would have pretty difficult to explain to the narcs, prosecutor, judge and jury … especially if the narcs and I managed to ‘bug’ the place or they decided it was safe enough for me to wear a ‘wire’.  After all, I really wasn’t being sent in there to conduct an OSHA inspection and otherwise help to improve operations.
Role-playing is never easy, I suppose, even in the best of circumstances … especially if your mind is in an entirely different place.
I’ve played that imagined scenario out in my head many times over the past years … age and experience progressively adding any number of likely possibilities to a story arc that probably wouldn’t have ended well for me, even if the idiot chemist actually had been there waiting for me that night instead of some of his far more dangerous friends.
But I never got to find out because about five minutes later, the snitch came running back down the road yelling that it was ‘all gone.’  It didn’t take us long to confirm that ‘it’ was the entire lab setup.  There were a bunch of empty solvent bottles, a rusted propane tank, some rubber tubing and a lot of miscellaneous trash; but none of the boiling flasks, beakers, burettes and other common chemical synthesis glassware -– of the type you often see on TV filled with unlikely red, blue and green liquids bubbling away cheerfully --- that might have helped tell us what was actually going on in that filthy excuse for a lab.
Assuming that anything actually had been going on, of course.
This was to be yet another lesson for me in the ever-dysfunctional relationships between narcs and snitches, neither of whom ever really trusted the other.  The narcs were sure this particular snitch was lying about the lab --- or, at the very least, probably trying to work both sides --- and he was insisting that everything he’d told them was absolutely true … and the actual truth was undoubtedly somewhere in between.
It looked to me like some kind of lab had been there, and a meticulous search of the crudely-built, scorched and stained wooden benches might have revealed traces of indicative reactants and products; but it was late, and I didn’t have my CSI kit with me, and the narcs weren’t interested in something they couldn’t prosecute … and I was actually more than willing to call it a night.
“This sort of thing happens all the time,” the vice/narc sergeant said philosophically was we drove back to the Sheriff’s Office.  “No big deal.  We’ll get to the source of those labs someday.”
Sadly, that vice/narc sergeant never lived to see how prophetic his words would be (he was killed by an armed robbery suspect a few years later in a freak shooting that never should have happened ... and I lost a treasured mentor and friend), and I went back to my desert crime scene work with a vague sense of relief that my brief role as an underground chemist was over.
Four years later, I would transfer to the Huntington Beach (CA) Police Department to set up a Scientific Investigation Bureau (crime lab, ID unit and photo lab), with my memories of Professor Radlick and that dark and grimy supposed meth lab tucked away deep in the back of my head.
Until the day that kids in Huntington Beach started showing up in the ERs with symptoms of extreme drug poisoning that the doctors couldn’t diagnose.
It didn’t take long for the HB narcs to focus in on a suspect who was supposedly selling some new form of PCP.  They made a buy off of him, brought the bindle of dark power to me, and waited for me to tell them that it actually was PCP (or any other illegal drug) so they could arrest him and seize his stash of drugs.
To say that they were dismayed when I finally told them it wasn’t PCP --- or any other illegal drug as far as I could tell --- was putting it mildly.  And they were even less happy when (with the help of a neighborly DEA crime lab chemist and his mass spectrograph) I was finally able to tell them that the drug they bought was a thiopene-analog of PCP … making it a drug that probably acted very much like PCP on the human brain, but was completely legal.  They couldn’t arrest him for the sale, and they couldn’t seize his stash.
But it turned out they could arrest him and seize his stash if he offered to sell it to them (again) as something that was illegal.  It was called ‘sales-in-lieu-of’ --- a misdemeanor, not a felony --- but it meant they could get this new deadly drug off the street, temporarily at least, which was really what they wanted to do.
So they went back out on the street, and came back to the lab a couple hours later yelling and screaming and waving bags of dope as if they’d just scored the winning touchdown (narcs are like that … arguably crazy people, given the nature of their job, but almost always entertaining to the crime lab folks).
So I asked the narc sergeant, as I was logging in all of the dope bags, “what did he sell it as?”
“Cannabinol,” the cheerful narc supervisor replied.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said, probably looking as shocked as I felt.
“Why, what’s wrong with that?” the suddenly sobered detective sergeant demanded.  “Cannabinol’s the street term for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana --- an illegal drug --- right?”
“You’re not going to like what I’m about to tell you,” I said, shaking my head, slowly and sadly.
To be continued …   

Sad Day ...

It's sadly ironic that at the moment I'm writing Part II of the origins of my illicit-drug novel titled The Alchemist, my wife's extended family and associated friends are holding a memorial down in San Diego County for a young member of the family who we used to call 'Char-boy' ... before he turned 25 and managed to do himself in with what will almost certainly turn out to be an overdose of heroin.

To say that this makes me angry barely describes my feelings.  While I couldn't care less if people sell, buy or smoke pot (ethyl alcohol has always been a far more deadly and destructive 'drug' among young and old alike, with far more lenient legal penalties for its illicit or stupid use ... I know, I used to work the tragic traffic accidents), I despise heroin dealers.  They know they're selling a drug that latches onto the human brain with a beguiling ferocity that is almost impossible to control, much less overcome ... and they don't care because they're doing it for money.

And yes, I know that the heroin victims made their own choice to take those first enticing and seemingly innocuous hits ... and you really don't want law enforcement officers disposing of these slime-ball dealers in what we might call a 'more efficient and effective' manner (I tend to favor the idea of complementary late-night and off-shore swimming lessons in the middle of a long chum-line, but that's probably just my fiction-writing brain talking), because that's a really dark and slippery slope, and vigilantism is best kept in the fiction books and movies.

But that doesn't stop me from thinking cheerful thoughts --- and writing lethal story arcs --- to try and make up for the loss of a nice kid who was trying to find his way in a tough world.

Rest in peace, Char-boy. 

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 … 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

On Balefire II ... the next book that never happened

Bantam didn’t want me to write The Alchemist.  What they wanted me to write was Balefire II … that is, Balefire I, only different.  In retrospect, I can certainly understand their point of view.  A lot of very nice people bought copies of Balefire I, so it stood to reason that these hopefully-satisfied readers might want to pick up a very similar story with the same characters.  All I had to do was sit down and write it.

And yes, I suppose I could have done exactly that, thereby making my dismayed editor and ever-skeptical wife happy; but there were a couple of inherent problems in the project that would make the writing effort difficult at best.

Let me try to explain.

First of all, let me start by saying that I try to write my stories as realistically as I can in terms of police and federal agent procedures, tactics, weaponry and … well .. impacts.  In real life, if a person gets hit by a hollow-point pistol bullet at pretty much any significant -- but not lethal -- spot on their body (we’ll ignore finger and toe wounds) including any ‘bullet-resistent’ vests they might be wearing, they will almost certainly go down hard … mostly because of hydrostatic shock.

Re hydrostatic shock: what we’re talking about here is the momentum (mass times velocity) of the bullet impact causing 1) serious local tissue damage (ripping, tearing, smashing and/or breaking) at the impact point, and 2) a high velocity pressure wave traveling from the impact point through the blood stream and right up into the brain.  Having attended an unfortunate number of autopsies during my 12 years of assisting in homicide investigations, I often got to see the results of such bullet impacts first-hand.  Nothing quite like seeing the masssive -- and often fatal -- brain-hemorraging resulting from a supposedly non-incapacitating arm, shoulder, or leg wound to make you laugh when the TV and movie characters bounce right back up from multiple gunshot wounds and continue fighting as if they’d been hit by nothing worse than a few well-aimed baseballs.

And it’s a rare movie that accurately deplicts the stunning imact of a high velocity bullet against a Kevlar® vest, the real-life end result being a stunned cop (the crooks aren’t supposed to have access to such vests) with a ‘half-orange' or even 'half-grapefruit’ sized internal chest bruise that almost certainly broke or cracked his sternum and ribs before going on to seriously bruise his heart.

You going to bounce right back up and re-engage in the firefight after something like that?  No, probably not … especially if there’s any possibility at all that you can just lay there and moan while your partners deal with the bad guys and save the day.

And we won’t even go into the oft-shown scene where a person (cop or crook) fires a handgun inside an enclosed space – such as a car or room – without ear protection, and then continues to function as though his eardrums hadn’t been blown out with brain-stunning effect.  In point of fact, the simple foolish act of firing a pistol out at an open-air practice range without ear protection is enough to leave you with ringing ears for several hours … and probably  some degree of high-end hearing loss in the bargain.  I know.  I did it once, unintentionally, one shot.  Won’t ever do it again!

So what does all of that have anything at all to do with me writing Balefire II?

Well, the main problem I was facing was that – in trying to write Balefire I as realistically as I could – the casuality rate (defined as death or serious injury) amongst the good guys turned out to be pretty high … much to the dismay of my Huntington Beach cop buddies, I might add.  Setting aside the possibility of massive literary reserection and/or pulling some of the characters back out of likely medical retirement, Balefire II wasn’t going to be ‘Balefire I only different.’  Out of necessity, it would have to be a different story with mostly new characters.  Not exactly what my editor had in mind.

Having said all of that, I suppose I should confess that the real reason I didn’t want to write Balefire II had a lot more to do with Ian Fleming than the good-guy casuality rate in Balefire I.  I’d read an article in which Fleming was quoted as saying that he never wanted to write another James Bond novel again, mostly because he was sick of the character … but he really didn’t have any choice in the matter because his publishers kept offering him scads of money to churn out yet another James Bond episode.  Poor fellow.

I tried to explain all of this to dear wife, but she wasn’t even remotely sympathetic about Fleming’s supposed mental problems, much less mine …. even though she did concede that nobody was offering me scads of money to write Balefire II.  But the idea of getting pigeon-holed into writing about a single character was a little chilling from my admitted niaive POV.

And besides, I had a great idea for a completely different story with a completely different set of characters that I really couldn’t resist starting to write … mostly because the real-life events that inspired the story had resulted in a much more dangerous situation than I’d expected when I volunteered for the assignment.

In the next blog segment, I’ll try to explain why.