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.


  1. wow, no comments yet? nice coverage on NPR on KMUW today. Two years later, but thanks to that piece I'll have to pickup your book The Aclhemist

  2. R u mad that Breaking Bad stole your story without mentioning you?

    1. I'm wondering that as well! Vince Gilligan believes the idea occurred to him out of the blue based on hearing about an article on some meth cooker driving around in an RV. Maybe this sort of thing is common?!

    2. LOL!! No, not concerned at all. While I did admittedly kinda go overboard a bit with my DEA agent and bad-guy characters, my story was very much centered around the scary idea of designer drugs, whereas Breaking Bad (a very clever and edgy series of scripts coupled with great acting, from my envious POV) was focused on meth .. and yes, we were going after a lot of mobile meth labs in the late 60's and 70's ... all of which makes me very grateful to have switched over to wildlife law enforcement!!