It was late Friday night when Ben Sherwood arrived at LAX, and learned a bomb had exploded at the Olympics, which he'd just left.
It was not the tragedy he had imagined and written about in "Red Mercury"--a novel about nuclear terrorism at the '96 Olympics in Atlanta--but it was bad enough. "Fiction and reality instantly collided in my brain," he says. "I was thrust into a very troubling place."
Sherwood did not have much time to think about it, though. The TV news departments of CNN, ABC and NBC were already on his trail, requesting interviews on terrorism and the government's methods of prevention.
Sherwood, a political writer-turned-novelist, was suddenly being treated as a real-life authority on a subject he'd researched for a novel he had written "just for fun."
In fact, his book doesn't even bear his real name on the cover. Sherwood, 32, used the pen name of Max Barclay for this first work of fiction, he says, to differentiate his usual, reality-based writing from this fling at what he presumed was literary fantasy.
But almost from the day the book was published, on July 4, it got attention in high places.
A former chief of counterterrorism at the CIA called it "authentic . . . authoritative and unmatched. Barclay knows the terrorism world and the real menaces we face . . ."
The Washington Post's "The Reliable Source" column reported that President Clinton had "grabbed 'Red Mercury' off the desk of advisor George Stephanopoulos and promptly devoured it" before traveling to Atlanta.
Then a call came to the publisher, Dove Books, from the FBI office in Atlanta, requesting 40 copies of the book for agents on duty there.
Sherwood says he knew even before then that he was cutting terribly close to some awful truths.
"From the very first call I made to research the book a year ago, I discovered that probably every security official in the United States knew the Games would be a magnet for madmen and terrorists wanting to make a point. In the aftermath of the Munich Games and the Oklahoma bombing, they were well aware that an attack might well take place."
He also learned from his research that the terrorist tragedy they feared (and still fear) most is nuclear in nature. To find out how the U.S. government would prevent such an event, he started calling highly placed officials, most of whom he did not think would talk to him.
But to his surprise, many of them did--simply because he was writing a novel rather than a news story.
"They don't usually talk to journalists. But they've spent years planning for these 17 days," Sherwood says, and a number of them were quite rightfully proud of their accomplishments. By talking to a novelist, often off the record, and strictly for use as background, they got to pat their own backs and divulge at least the basics of some top secret innovations.
He says he was "tremendously impressed" by U.S. anti-terrorist officials he met at various agencies--the FBI, CIA, the departments of Energy and Defense, to name a few--and by their total commitment to their work. He was also "mesmerized" (and possibly a bit terrified) at what they told him.
He learned, for example, that the Atlanta Games are being overseen by "a spy satellite that hovers directly over the city of Atlanta, providing 24-hour reconnaissance imagery. In the event of an emergency, the satellite offers battlefield overview images that are very valuable in moving teams and resources."
He also learned of NEST--the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, which Sherwood describes as "a secret U.S. government SWAT team now poised in Atlanta to guard against the unthinkable." It's a kind of nuclear Dirty Dozen, which Sherwood says he learned about directly from its chief, who is based in Washington, D.C.
Then there's TEU, the Technical Escort Unit, a U.S. Army team that deals with biological and chemical threats, such as last year's nerve gas attack in a Tokyo subway--threats which Sherwood says, with some mystery creeping into his voice, have been "unbelievable."
The plot of his book, much of it concocted from what he learned during these interviews, is fictional, of course. But, unfortunately, it is also well within the realm of possibility, he says.
The hideous red mercury of the title is not a fictional substance, for example. "It is the name used by scientists for a material that is causing real debate now in the world of nuclear weapon design. Physicists disagree whether this substance exists. If it does, it would allow for the miniaturization of nuclear weapons to the size of a school lunch box," Sherwood says.
In his book, as in real life, the most elaborate security system ever mounted in mankind's history is camouflaged by the flags and the fanfare of the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
And, as in real-life, government agents from more than 55 law enforcement agencies cope with several layers of threats from various sources--all kept secret from the cheering crowds. Where Sherwood's fiction hopefully departs from fact: It soon becomes known that a stash of weapons-grade nuclear material has been stolen from the now-crumbling Soviet empire--and its trail leads right to the heart of the Olympic Village.
Among the cast of Sherwood's threatening characters are Middle Eastern suicide bombers, right-wing militias, a disgruntled nuclear scientist, and a demented soul who unleashes attacks by air, land and sea. He even has a scenario in which an ordinary-looking shotput gets into the Olympic Village although it is not ordinary at all. It is really a core of nuclear material made undetectable because it is overlaid with seven inches of lead.
Sherwood, a Beverly Hills native, graduated from Harvard University in 1986 and studied history at Oxford University in England, for three years.
He interned as a journalist in the Washington and Paris bureaus of the Los Angeles Times and worked as an investigative producer at ABC news' "Prime Time Live," before branching into freelance writing for magazines and newspapers. He is working on a nonfiction book about politics to be published next year.
His sojourn into fiction began, he says, when he realized "that for every athlete in Atlanta there would be three security people waiting in the wings. And, as a lifelong Olympics fan," he also began to wonder how, "in the aftermath of Munich and Oklahoma, the government would handle security for those 10,000 athletes from 197 countries and 2 million visitors to the Games."
The answers he found were mostly reassuring, he says. He felt secure during his nine-day visit to the Atlanta Games, knowing that officials had prepared to fend off every level of terrorist event, from unsophisticated pipe bombs to highly sophisticated biological warfare attacks.
But if this is true, how did a man with a gun get inside the Olympic Village on the day of the opening ceremonies? And how did the pipe bomb that resulted in two deaths and more than 100 injuries--go undetected in Centennial Park early Saturday morning?
"This tragedy underscores one of the themes of my book:. All of the best-laid plans, all the most committed individuals, all the highest levels of technology cannot always prevent a terrorist event. In my research, I found officials were very worried about just such a low-tech event as the one that took place on Saturday--an unsophisticated and improvised bomb. They certainly were ready for it--but they just couldn't prevent it," given the fact that the park was open to everyone.
"It was a breakdown which proved that no security system is foolproof, that we continue to face enormous challenges, that there is always more to be done, and that this particular battle can never be won decisively."