In over 15 years working as a private investigator, I only faced real physical danger once—and it was a doctor who tried to kill me.
We’ll call him Rob “Doc” Devendra, and in the early 1980s he took a year off from med school to work in a friend’s business. The friend was a San Francisco cocaine dealer linked to the Medellin Cartel. Doc drove 50-100 pound loads of Colombian cocaine from Miami to the west coast. (This was before the Mexican pipeline developed, obviously.)
As job’s went, it wasn’t half bad: The money was unbelievable, and the adrenalin rush as addictive as the coke. But, after only a year, Doc developed an all-too-common medical condition known in layman’s terms as Cold Feet. He realized he could make millions in the drug biz legitimately, writing prescriptions for bored housewives, a future his flirtation with the dark side could ruin. And so he and his Colombian-connected pal parted ways—amicably, as it turned out. Doc returned to med school, became a doctor, and lived a happy and prosperous life—until the summer of 1988.
Doc’s friend the dealer, facing a ten year sentence for trafficking, became a federal informant and began identifying all his past associates and business partners. Interestingly, Doc was not one of the people he named—which is, in legal parlance, a material omission. This made Doc a very interesting fellow to the people the drug dealer did name.
Rule No. 1 of criminal defense: Snitches lie. And in this case Doc was the living proof.
I was retained by one of the defendants, accused of helping the snitch launder his money. My job was to find Doc, interview him, and serve him with a subpoena mandating his appearance at trial.
After weeks of talking with a variety of characters, plus record searches in three states, I tracked Doc down to Hannibal, Missouri, where he had a stake in a small family-practice clinic.
Arriving in town in mid-July, I first drove to his house—common practice, a man at work can always claim he’s too busy to see you—and rang the bell. Shortly his slender, doe-eyed wife appeared, accompanied by a very friendly Dalmatian. I told the wife I was working on a legal matter based out west, and it was important I speak with her husband. I politely declined to say more out of respect for his privacy.
The wife seemed mystified. She told me Doc was out of town but she’d let him know I’d stopped by. I asked when he’d be back. She said she wasn’t sure, then pressed me for more information: Legal matter? Out west? Her husband?
“It really is best,” I said, “if I discuss all this first with Doc.”
I had to assume she was lying, of course, so I kept returning. Sometimes I’d just park down the street, hours at a time, to see who came or went. I followed the wife here and there, noting the make of her car, the one left behind in the garage, where she went, the friends she met. And as I kept re-appearing at her door, she greeted me with increasing alarm. (The Dalmation, curiously enough, always seemed glad to see me.)
Getting nowhere with the wife, I decided to try the father. He owned a small jewelry shop, and had reportedly also, once upon a time, strayed from the law. He was rawboned, blondishly gray with a short-cropped beard. His attitude started out folksy and sly, but when I just kept coming back he grew hostile. He told me to stop pestering him, he’d call the law. I apologized for the intrusions—and called his bluff, returning again and again.
Two days in, frustrated with the direct approach, I decided to get creative. I made an appointment to see Doc at his clinic. Using an assumed name, I complained of lower back pain—which in fact was true, an affliction caused by long hours spent in cars finding, trailing, and surveilling people like Guess Who. I was sitting there in the examination room, complimenting myself on being so doggone clever, when the door opened.
Not Doc. His partner—Asian, soft-spoken, middle-aged. I had—as they say in the biz—been made. The partner asked: “What is this about really?” I calmly, professionally, repeated my spiel. The doctor, feigning puzzlement but clearly disturbed—what kind of trouble was his partner in?—said he would pass word along. I left, sensing I’d at least increased the pressure on Doc to stop delaying and meet with me.
Meanwhile, another far more serious situation arose. It concerned my brother John. He had gone in for an AIDS test, and the results were due. I called, spoke with his lover David, and asked what they’d learned. After a very long pause, David said: “You’ll have to ask your brother.” When I finally spoke with John, he calmly discussed treatments that were available, and assured me there was nothing to fear just yet.
The receiver felt like a stone in my hand. I was devastated.
My love for John had gone through four distinct stages.
One: early childhood—he was my hero, my protector. I adored him.
Two: age 5 or so to 18, he turned on me from guilt and shame, evoked by his homosexuality, his fear of being found out—he tormented me, tongue-lashed me every day, finding fault with every single thing: my daydreaming, my sloppiness, my books, my interest in sports and military history, my music. I hated him.
Three: age 19 to early thirties—John came out of the closet, accepted himself, and apologized to me for all those years of vicious, relentless hazing. I abided him, playing the righteous victim, holding on to my resentment like a trophy, even as we got along better and better.
Four: the final two years of his life—I realized my stupidity, my need to let go of that pointless grudge and forgive. I accepted his need to love me and be my big brother, and accepted as well how much I wanted that.
Desperate to return home, visit John, I became even more obsessive in my quest to nail Doc Devendra. I spent the entire weekend going back and back again—the wife, the father, a lawyer who’d incorporated the medical practice, a realtor who’d brokered the purchase of the clinic, an old business partner in nearby Palmyra, names I’d come up with in my searches—letting everyone know I was going stay in their lives on a daily if not hourly basis until the good doctor met with me face to face.
Come Monday morning—feeling exhausted, outfoxed, emotionally spent—I came up with one final plan. I had my camera with me, to take pictures if he fled, and my tape recorder to record all verbal exchanges, in case he tried to claim I’d threatened or extorted him. I parked my rental car in front of his clinic, slumped down into the seat so I couldn’t be seen, adjusted my rear view mirror so I could observe all incoming vehicles. People walking into the clinic could see me, but that was a risk I had to take. I waited. From previous visits I knew that, if he parked behind the clinic, he was trapped.
About forty minutes later, his wife’s gold Honda sped past me down the small side drive. There was only one person in it. A man. Doc.
I turned on my tape recorder, dropped it in my sportcoat pocket, grabbed my camera and the subpoena, then followed him on foot. I turned the corner just as he was getting out of the car, thirty yards away. Seeing me, he jumped back in, threw the Honda in gear. The car sped toward me.
I blocked the only way out.
One often hears it said that there is a difference between courage and fearlessness. The sheer overwhelming and predictable physicality of fear is something the brutal repetition of combat, police and firefighter training is meant to overcome. Blind habit will take over and push you forward into the teeth of your terror when the mind, the hobgoblins and specters of imagination, will freeze you in place. Fearlessness, in this way of thinking, is foolishness. There is no such thing. The absence of fear is lunacy, and its presence can actually be a kind of animal wisdom, as long as your training is there to save you.
Buddhism has a somewhat different take, as I’ve noted before. Fear is seen as the flip side of hope. When we hope for something we reside in a fictional world, projected into the future, a seemingly benign dream that fuels our initiative. And often we fear that we will do something, or something will get done to us, that will jeopardize this oasis we’ve imagined for ourselves. But it’s a mirage, it never existed in the first place, except as a vessel to hold our wishes. In her book WHEN THINGS FALL APART, which a friend gave to me after my wife Terri died, the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes: “If we want to be free of fear, we must first surrender hope.”
And so, as I stood my ground, waiting to get run over, I suppose it’s fair to ask: Which was I—courageous, fearless, or just out of hope? In all honesty—and anyone who has been in a high speed car crash (or combat) will know exactly what I’m saying—I was none of the above. What I felt was time distortion, the seconds expanding like deep breaths, and a kind of numbness, tinged with my underlying anger. Marines call this Task Saturation, when you are so focused on what you have to do, your emotions lock down—anger, fueled by adrenalin, is the lone exception. In my case, I was simply so focused on serving that god damn subpoena once and for all so I could get home to see my brother, and so enraged I hadn’t done so already—enraged at myself, Doc, his wife, his father, my brother, God, fate—that I simply didn’t care what happened. The car kept coming, faster. I remember thinking, “Be my guest, asshole.”
At the last moment, the Hippocratic Oath kicked in. The Honda screeched to a lurching stop inches from my body, the bumper grazing my legs. Still trying to scare me, Doc revved the engine to its highest RPMs—this would be the only sound on my tape—as I leaned out at full length across the car hood and tucked the subpoena under his windshield wiper.
I stepped aside. Doc sped away. Only then did I notice I was shaking.
When my report hit the office back in San Francisco, the staff regarded me with a new, somewhat hushed respect. They thought I was remarkably—if, perhaps, crazily—brave. Only then did I realize I’d done something out of the ordinary. And though I wanted to give myself credit, I knew it wasn’t courage or even fearlessness I’d demonstrated back in Hannibal—it was fury. I wasn’t even sure I knew what courage was.
A few months later, I was visiting my brother at his house. He was still handsome then, though increasingly gaunt from the wasting, to where his vivid blue eyes looked haunted. He told me he needed to take a bath, and asked if I would help scrub his back. Karposi’s Sarcoma had left large seeping lesions all across his body. He gingerly settled down into the bathwater. I lathered my hands, and gently washed his back. When I was finished, he said quietly, “Thank you.”
I left him alone, went into the kitchen, told David I’d just helped John bathe. Very calmly, he reached for a special soap dispenser at the sink.
“You need to wash your hands with this. It has bleach in it.”
Every day, David risked his life to care for my brother. He would ultimately die from that devotion.
So, Murderateros, who was your tutor in courage? How did your lesson play out?
How have you carried the lesson forward?
Have you been someone else’s mentor in what it means to be brave?
Do you agree that there’s a difference between courage and fearlessness?
Do you think hope is a source of strength, or a house of cards?
Did you ever have your own “trip to see the doctor?”
Note: I’m in a panic today, preparing for the Book Passage Mystery Conference — specifically, getting ready for my pre-conference seminar, Integrating Acts & Arcs (not to be confused with Implementing Snacks & Snarks) — so I apologize in advance for any tardy responses to comments. I’ll do my best to be prompt.
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Review Update: Please excuse the BSP, but Len Wanner, whose The Crime of It All is one of the most engaging online sources on crime writing, recently posted his review of DO THEY KNOW I’M RUNNING? If you don’t know the book or my work, this is perhaps the most flattering, humbling, gratifying introduction I could hope for. I can die now.
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: I’m a little conflicted. This post made me miss my brother, and I grew up listening to John practicing Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” on the piano — in fact, I’m not sure I remember him practicing anything else — but I just couldn’t bring myself to put it here. (“If I never hear that tune again as long as I live …”)
But Terri’s birthday is coming up (July 23rd), and as a small memorial I’ve decided to include a video of a song she loved, Lloyd Price’s “Personality.”
I had originally included a performance she and I once watched together on PBS. It’s one of only a handful of times I ever saw a piece of music reduce her to tears — she trained as a concert pianist, it tends to grind the sentiment out of you. I still choke up when I listen to this music alone. It’s as perfect a performance as I’ve ever heard: Martha Argerich on piano, the second movement to Ravel’s Concerto in G. But today of all days they closed that video down, claiming copyright infringement. Phooey, as Terri would say. My apologies to thos of you who tried the earlier link and came up short.
Wait! As Katherine so kindly pointed out, there’s another YouTube version of the Ravel, for the more classically minded of you. Here tis (THANKS KATHERINE)!