Thank you for letting me guest on this edition of I Read What You Write. I’m James L’Etoile and I write mysteries, suspense, and thrillers. My most recent work, BLACK LABEL, published by Level Best Books, was released on July 20th. One question typically asked at book events is, “Where did you come up with this idea?”
With my previous books, there was a direct pull from my experience working in the California prison system for twenty-nine years. With BLACK LABEL, the inspiration came to me from another path and I thought I’d let my main character, Jillian Cooper tell the story herself.
Me: Jillian, could you tell the good folks here at I Read What You Write a little bit about you and how your story unfolds in BLACK LABEL.
JC: Where do I begin. I was an executive vice president of a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical firm when this story started. I devoted my life to company. All my waking hours were spent on marketing the company’s latest and greatest drugs. I poured my soul into Dynalife and didn’t have much time for anything, or anyone else in my life. The company came first.
Me: Then something happened and that changed, didn’t it?
JC: You could say that. You kind of ran me through the ringer on the pages here. I woke up in a strange place, don’t know how I got there, and the next thing I know I’m being accused of murder. There’s evidence everywhere. Photos with me and the man I supposedly killed—photos I don’t remember being in. Then there is blood on my clothes that I can’t explain away. A piece of my Tanzanite jewelry is found in the dead man’s home. I can’t remember anything from the past two days. I might have killed him.
Me: Without giving away too much of the story, there is a counterfeit pharmaceutical lab you’re involved with. Can that happen in real life?
JC: First of all writer boy, I’m not involved with any black market drug operation. But yes, these underground labs do exist. Counterfeit prescription drugs are a $200 billion business annually. And it’s growing at a rate of 20% per year. It’s especially prevalent in developing countries where as much as 30% of medicines sold are counterfeit. These unregulated, fake drugs may contain a diluted dose of the prescription, contaminants, or other dangerous chemical compounds. We’ve seen a taste of what could happen in this country with the fentanyl-laced Oxy. Nearly 70% of the overdose deaths in 2019 involved counterfeit pills. It’s very real and the potential for widespread counterfeit pharmaceutical distribution is scary. I find one of these operations in BLACK LABEL.
Me: So, why couldn’t you just go to the police?
JC: You wouldn’t let me. I mean, there was enough evidence—overwhelming evidence that I’d killed someone. I couldn’t remember doing it. But, I couldn’t remember anything from that entire weekend. My mother suffered from dementia and experienced memory lapses before she killed herself. There was a fear that I was following in her path. One way or another, it looked like I was a murderer, or going insane. I couldn’t go to the police until I knew which one.
Me: Which felt more threatening, being accused of murder, or thinking you might be losing your mind?
JC: Both make you feel helpless and I’m not about to play the damsel in distress. I can’t stand to feel weak and dependent upon anyone else. I’ve been that way my entire life. Hard work, long hours, and sacrifice got me a seat at the table in the boardroom. I’m not about to pretend to be something I’m not. A slide into dementia, as my mother did scares me more than the chance of going to prison. When your mind finally goes, you have no choice but to be dependent upon others. That would be my ultimate prison…
Me: Without giving too much away, what three things would prevent something like BLACK LABEL from happening in the real world.
JC: I hate to sound cliché here, but more women in the boardroom is a good place to start. The old boy’s network that allowed something like BLACK LABEL to flourish is rampant in corporate structure. I’m not saying that adding a token female to the board is a fix-all, but bringing in competent diverse people will stabilize an otherwise shaky corporate moral compass. Secondly, increase the regulation of prescription drugs and pharmaceuticals, particularly those sold in developing nations. We do a decent job in this country, but not to the point that the consuming public trusts the drugs thrust upon them. COVID vaccines? Finally, organized crime will always be where there is money to be made. We need to make it harder for them to infiltrate legitimate business. In the 1970’s prison gangs were able to successfully bid on state contracts, laundering drug money and using contract staff to carry out gang business.
Me: Is there anything you’d like to tell the readers?
JC: I guess, I’d tell them I’m somewhat of a cautionary tale. When you’re so focused, career-driven, and working to get that next promotion, you lose sight of what’s going on around you. You end up becoming isolated and alone. This almost obsessive drive to excel nearly got me killed because I had blinders on to what was going on right under my nose. I’d say learn from my mistakes and stive for a healthy work and life balance. All work and no play leaves Jillian vulnerable and nearly broken.
I hope you have a chance to check out BLACK LABEL. I’d love to know what you think.
James L’Etoile uses his twenty-nine years behind bars as an influence in his novels, short stories, and screenplays. He is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, facility captain, and director of California’s state parole system. He is a nationally recognized expert witness on prison and jail operations. He has been nominated for the Silver Falchion for Best Procedural Mystery, and The Bill Crider Award for short fiction. His published novels include: At What Cost, Bury the Past, Little River -The Other Side of Paradise, and Black Label . Look for Dead Drop in the summer of 2022 from Level Best Books. You can find out more at www.jamesletoile.com
Black Label by James L’Etoile July 12 – August 8, 2021 Tour
Can she discover the truth before she’s condemned to life in prison, or a mental hospital?
A pharmaceutical executive wakes up in a strange apartment and finds herself suspected of the murder of her company’s CEO. Believing she’s insane, or a murderer, Jillian Cooper finds herself on the run from not only the police but also gang enforcers.
Life-sustaining prescription drugs are a trillion-dollar industry, but who really knows what’s hidden inside those pills and capsules? Big Pharma has a secret and it’s costing thousands of lives. Prison gangs and corporate board members make strange bedfellows, but where there’s money to be had, peace exists through an off-the-books Black Label drug lab. Jillian is left to unravel the company’s secrets before she lands in jail or becomes another victim.
Genre: Thriller Published by: Level Best Books Publication Date: July 20, 2021 Number of Pages: 300 ISBN: 978-1-953789-14-3
It was bad this time. Jillian shielded her eyes from the sharp edge of morning light and dug her fingers into the pillow clutched over her face. Deep in her temples, her pulse hammered a fast, painful staccato rhythm. She’d gone months since her last migraine, and this one tightened a vice around her skull. Even with her eyes closed, her vision clouded with a kaleidoscope of bright dots. The rustle of bedcovers sounded like the world fell in around her. Jillian Cooper’s world had crumbled down and threatened to suffocate her, only she didn’t know it–yet.
She reached for the phone she kept on her bedside table. There was no way she was going to make it to her Saturday morning spin class. Her hand probed for the phone, her head still tucked under the pillow. First one way, then she groped in another direction, knocking over a small brass table lamp. Jillian recoiled from the clatter as the metal lamp rung as loudly as the bells at Saints’ Peter and Paul Church over in North Beach. She peeled off her protective pillow and reached for the phone. Her phone wasn’t on the bedside table, and neither was the stack of paperback books she habitually kept at hand. Blinding pinpricks of light danced in her vision, making it impossible to focus through the swirling aura.
Fighting against the pounding in her head, Jillian crept to the edge of the bed, dangled her legs off the side, and brushed her toes gently on the polished hardwood floor. Jillian shuddered, a wave of nausea poured over her. The feeling wasn’t from a migraine. It came from the realization she wasn’t in her apartment. Her place didn’t have hardwood floors. Jillian didn’t know where she was, or worse, how she got here.
Instead of her phone, a half-empty Gran Patrón Platinum tequila bottle and a wrinkled condom wrapper lay on the nightstand. She spotted her clothes on the other side of the room, in a heap on a leather chair. Jillian pulled the sheet away from herself and peered downward.
She was naked under the bed covers. Jillian couldn’t remember the slightest detail leading up to her ending the night disrobed, nor could she feel the lingering warmth of being with someone, in spite of the condom wrapper left on the nightstand. She’d never experienced a blackout from alcohol before. Jillian stayed away from tequila as a rule because of a few bad hangovers back when she attended San Francisco State University. If it weren’t for the half-empty bottle of pricy booze, she’d have sworn she hadn’t touched the stuff in ten years.
Yet, here she was–tequila, nakedness, and all. She hoped a tall, dark, handsome, athletic man was going to burst through the bedroom door with a tray of cappuccinos and warm croissants. At this point, a short, round, gnomish man with instant coffee and a day-old pop tart would be welcome. It wasn’t her habit to “sleep around,” as her mother used to call it. However, Jillian Cooper was a woman who enjoyed the occasional company of men, and this was not the first time she’d greeted the sunrise from a man’s place following a late night hook-up. She always remembered them, until this morning. The migraine and the tequila played games in her head—loud, pulsing, and painful games.
The bedroom, where she did God-only-knows-what, was expensively furnished and decidedly masculine. Dark hues of burnished leather and deep mahogany dominated the space. A set of wooden horizontal blinds kept out some light, and in spite of her headache, curiosity demanded she open them.
The window looked out over Huntington Park in Nob Hill, some of the priciest real estate in San Francisco. From her vantage point, Jillian figured the room sat on the sixth floor, or higher, and commanded a view of the grey slate tile roof of Grace Cathedral and Mt. Sutro off to the South. The condo, or whatever this place was, offered the resident one of those “ten-million-dollar views” everyone wanted, but few could afford. Jillian’s salary as a Vice President of Marketing for Dynalife Pharmaceutical wouldn’t buy the dust in a place like this.
Another wave of nausea buckled Jillian’s knees. She grabbed onto a dresser near the window and braced herself while the queasiness passed. As she opened her eyes, she focused on a silver-plated frame on the top of the dresser. Jillian peered at a photograph of her own image, a picture of her, with her boss, Jonathon Mattson, the CEO of Dynalife Pharmaceutical.
Confusion and panic clawed at Jillian’s mind. Mattson was thirty-five years her senior and married to one of the city’s society matrons. Jillian supposed some women found him attractive, with his swagger and the ease with which he flaunted his wealth. There were lines Jillian did not cross; never, ever, get involved with someone at work, and married men were off limits.
What was she doing here, naked in Mattson’s apartment? Had Jillian broken both rules? The thought of a relationship with Mattson was unthinkable. The photograph meant they’d been together before. The two looked at ease with one another in the photo, and it hinted at a close personal relationship, her hand on his chest. When the hell was that taken? She had no recollection of an evening with Jonathon Mattson, let alone posing for a photo.
“What have I done?”
Jillian staggered to the chair with her wadded-up clothes, slid into her panties, quickly stepped into her dark blue dress, shoved a bra in her purse, and grabbed her shoes from the floor. With an ear to the door, Jillian listened. Filtered by the thrum of her heartbeat, she heard voices deep within the apartment. She felt her face blush thinking about who she’d meet as she snuck out. Her hand trembled on the doorknob as she turned it, a fraction of an inch at a time until the lock slid back with a muted click. The door opened inward a few inches, the voices became more distinct–a television.
Shoes in hand, Jillian crept down the hallway. The hardwood floor felt cold under her bare feet as she made her way to the large open living space. A flat-screen television blared the financial news from CNN to an empty room. Jillian glanced at the kitchen, and she exhaled when she realized she was alone in the apartment. The veil of swirling bright spots in her vision started to clear, and she needed to head home for her migraine medication. She desperately wanted to leave before Jonathon Mattson returned. She couldn’t face him with the cocktail of anger and shame whirling inside her.
Slipping on her shoes, she listened as the CNN anchor, a carefully coifed and airbrushed young blonde reporter, delivered her monologue.
“The market opened with a quick rally this morning,” the anchorwoman said.
“Today’s Saturday and the market isn’t open, bimbo,” Jillian said. “Where do they find these people?” She found her jacket folded over the back of a sofa.
Jillian tucked the jacket under her arm, reached for the apartment door and stopped when she heard the woman’s voice drone on.
“In other financial news, the death of Dynalife Pharmaceutical CEO, Jonathon Mattson sent the mega-pharmaceutical company’s stock prices plummeting in early trading. Authorities are looking into the matter and haven’t disclosed any details about the death.”
Jillian froze when the screen flashed a photo of Mattson, with a banner under the image proclaiming, “Billionaire Pharmaceutical CEO Dead.”
The television news turned the page and droned on about other financial news. Mattson was a mere footnote in the market ledgers. Business goes on.
“That can’t be. Jonathon, dead?”
Another cramp of nausea hit her, and she wrapped her arms around her midsection as if she held her insides together. The apartment space closed in on her, and when the spasms subsided, Jillian darted for the door and flung it open. She ran across the hall to an elevator and stabbed the down button repeatedly, willing the car to appear. The hallway space was foreign; nothing in the décor sparked a memory of how she got here. But here she was, and it wasn’t like she magically appeared in Mattson’s apartment. Jillian didn’t know Jonathon kept an apartment on Knob Hill. It must have been a secret rendezvous pad for Jonathon and his rumored affairs. A wave of nausea swept over Jillian at the though she was now among his conquests.
The whir of the elevator stopped, and a light electronic bleep sounded the arrival of the conveyance. She slid into the empty elevator before the doors fully opened and punched the lobby button. The cool wall of the elevator car soothed the back of her head, the first comforting thing since awakening in this bad dream.
She couldn’t shake the nightmare off. Questions without answers cascaded through her mind. What happened? Where was she? Who was she with?
“Come on–come on,” she urged the doors as they closed at a slow agonizing pace.
“It’s not possible. Today is Saturday, and I saw Jonathon at a board meeting yesterday–Friday. It has to be a huge mistake.” She drew in a deep breath and tried to center herself.
The elevator chimed, and the doors opened into the building’s lobby. Jonathon wasn’t there to expose some elaborate practical joke. Instead, Jillian found the marble-tiled lobby empty, except for a doorman who gave her a smirk and a nod signaling, “I know what you did last night.” The man leered and stroked his short stubble beard as Jillian passed his station.
Jillian stepped outside to the curb and raised her hand for a taxi. She glanced at a newspaper rack on the sidewalk next to her, and the headline caught her breath short.
Billionaire Jonathon Mattson Murdered.
The date jumped off the page. It was the Monday edition.
Mattson was dead; she’d met with him on Friday and woke up in his apartment this morning. Jillian’s knees buckled with the realization that two days passed without a single lingering memory. Two days erased without a trace.
Excerpt from Black Label by James L’Etoile. Copyright 2021 by James L’Etoile. Reproduced with permission from James L’Etoile. All rights reserved.
James L’Etoile uses his twenty-nine years behind bars as an influence in his novels, short stories, and screenplays. He is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, facility captain, and director of California’s state parole system. He is a nationally recognized expert witness on prison and jail operations. He has been nominated for the Silver Falchion for Best Procedural Mystery, and The Bill Crider Award for short fiction. His published novels include: At What Cost, Bury the Past, and Little River -The Other Side of Paradise.
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