Behind the Book
As I write this, it’s not hard for me to remember what prompted me to start my first novel, but I have no idea what made me finish it. I was working for a bank at the time and spending nearly all my off hours rock climbing. For some reason, it suddenly occurred to me that I was locked in an endless cycle of mathematical and physical. I had always aspired to be a creative person but I never exercised that part of my brain. Why not give it a try?
My first bright idea was to learn to build furniture. That plan had some drawbacks, the most obvious of which being that I’m not very handy. It was my wife who suggested I write a novel. It seemed like a dumb idea since I majored in finance and had spent my entire college career avoiding English courses. Having said that, I couldn’t completely shake off the idea. Eventually, it nagged at me long enough that I felt compelled to put pen to paper.
I don’t recall exactly how I came up with the concept that America’s drug problem could be ended by poisoning the narcotics supply—probably just being obnoxious at a dinner party. The more I thought about it, the more certain I became that this would be a great central theme for a novel. Add to that the fact that I had a lifetime of contacts at the FBI and DEA through my father, and it seemed like a project that could be kind of fun.
Interestingly, Rising Phoenix is the fastest novel I ever wrote—eight months from start to finish. You can see the beginnings of what has evolved into my writing style: moral ambiguity, unconventional heroes, a fascination with villains, and a passion for realism. To my surprise, this book became a national bestseller and some people still tell me that it’s their favorite.
I have to admit to finding some of the writing a bit amateurish as I look back on it, though the excitement I felt about the process comes through and the plot works really well. I wish I’d spent some more time looking at different perspectives on America’s relationship with drugs. There’s a lot of propaganda and misinformation out there and it would have been interesting to try to cut through some of it. Unfortunately, it takes time to gain the kind of confidence you need to explore issues like that.
Mark Beamon swung his arm wildly at the alarm clock, hitting the snooze button dead center, and silence once again reigned in the dark bedroom. When the ringing started again, a moment later, he realized that the phone, and not the alarm, was the culprit. He squinted at the bright red numbers hovering in the darkness, announcing that it was just after 4:00am.
Beamon fumbled for the phone finally finding the receiver and pulling it to his ear.
“For God’s sake, what?” he said sleepily.
“Turn on CNN.” Tom Sherman’s voice.
The sound of the FBI’s Associate Director’s voice woke him up enough to push himself into a sitting position. In his youth, he had loved these late night calls—they promised an interesting morning and made him feel important. Now they just made him feel tired.
He piled his two pillows behind him and fumbled for the remote. After a moment of searching he found it, and the room was bathed in the unsteady gray light of an old black and white movie. Humphry Bogart was lighting a cigarette in the lobby of an obscenely ornate hotel.
The light in the room flickered again as Bogart disappeared and a thin young woman with a microphone took his place.
The woman’s green coat glowed in the harsh light of the TV cameras, contrasting her pale skin and quickly moving red lips. Behind her the light faded, leaving about forty feet of dead space ending in a white building with heavy looking double glass doors. As his eyes adjusted, Beamon began to focus on the dead space. Upon further examination, it appeared to be full of people at different levels of activity. Along the bottom of the television, the caption Johns Hopkins Hospital was spelled out in capital letters. Slightly larger was the word MUTE. Beamon had always liked TV better with no sound.
“So what the hell’s going on, Tommy?”
The woman’s voice went from a timid whisper to a self assured shout as he pressed the volume control.
“What you’re seeing is happening at hospitals all over the country, Mark.”
Beamon focused on the screen as the camera panned away from the woman and splashed light on the activity behind her.
He had never been in a war but was a fan of war movies. What he saw reminded him of triage after a battle. The soldiers were always strewn out in the dirt, some lying quietly, others writhing and bleeding. Heroic doctors and nurses would run from litter to litter, hunched over against sniper fire and helicopter wash.
Every once in a while, a light from another source flooded the scene, bringing a new perspective. He punched the volume button one last time.
“…it’s impossible to tell how many patients there are here, because they keep moving them in and out of the hospital—I lost count at seventy-eight. Obviously the doctors have begun seeing people out here in the parking lot. From where I’m standing I can see in through the glass doors of the building. It looks like the floor is covered with patients. I’m not sure how they’re getting stretchers in and out—it looks impossible to walk in there.” Steam billowed from her mouth as she spoke.
The camera panned right, illuminating the face of a blonde man in a leather bomber jacket laying on the ground amidst the turmoil. His face was stark white. Beads of water clung to his cheeks, shining like diamonds under the harsh camera light. He didn’t acknowledge the attention, he only stared up through the rain and chewed on his lower lip with a jerky mechanical precision. Blood had begun to flow from it and mixed with the light rain to run pink down his chin.
Beamon sat silently in his bed, vaguely aware of Tom Sherman’s breathing on the other end of the phone. The woman turned away from the camera and tried to stop a quickly moving young doctor. He shrugged her off without looking up. Her second attempt, involving actually grabbing a man’s arm, met with more success. He was much older and obviously wiser about good publicity’s role in saving lives.
“Could you tell us what’s going on here, Dr…?”
“Mason,” he replied looking into the camera with a practiced calm. “We’re not entirely sure. The symptoms seem to be consistent with the victims of the suspected drug poisonings that have been getting so much press lately, but yesterday we only had six patients with those symptoms. Today…” His voice trailed off as he pointed to the chaos behind him.
“Doctor, the prior victims of these tainted drugs were all diagnosed terminal. Are you saying that none of these people are going to survive?” Her professional poise began to crack as the realization that she might be standing in the middle of a graveyard sank in.
“I really couldn’t say.” He fingered the stethoscope hanging around his neck. “What I can tell you is that they’re at the best hospital in the world and we’re doing everything we can—now you’ll have to excuse me.”
Beamon hit the MUTE button as the reporter began to summarize the few words that she’d been able to get.
“Shit, Tommy,” he said quietly into the phone. As he spoke, the screen darkened for a moment, switching to a man standing in front of a similar scene. The caption placed it at Mount Sinai Hospital.
“I sent a car for you, Mark. It should be there in less than fifteen minutes. See you at the office.” There was an audible click.
Beamon sat for a moment in silence, cradling the receiver in his lap. He’d had a gut feeling that this case was going to be uglier than anyone expected. But he hadn’t planned on this.