“YOU know about them, right?” She allowed me barely a second to reply before she added, “Come on.” She punctuated the plea with a hurried sigh, a little huff that I found more plaintive than insistent. “Don’t play opaque shrink with me, please. I don’t have … time. Just tell me you know about them.”
I stole a glance out the window, looking for present danger. I hated that I was frightened again.
I had to resist an urge to run from my own office.
I thought, Maybe this woman is crazy. The idea buoyed me. I wanted “them” to be the F.B.I., or the C.I.A. I wanted her to warn me about brain-scanning devices installed by the government in fluorescent lightbulbs. I wanted my new patient to be nuts.
The horror of psychosis was preferable to the alternative.
It had been more than a year since her husband’s small plane disappeared in the vast Sangre de Cristo range in the southern Rockies. His remains went undiscovered until hikers stumbled across the wreckage in the depths of a north-facing canyon 13 months after the crash.
To me, the lack of speculation in the news media after the funeral was heartening. Although I remained far from convinced that he died accidentally, I had begun to reconsider my conclusion about his manner of death. Perhaps it was too paranoid by half.
But the presence of his widow in my office caused my months of dogged rationalization to evaporate like virga. I was, again, feeling a conviction that Rick Conway, a famous man I’d never met, had been murdered.
I recognized her only because I had watched from afar the day she appeared at a press conference confirming her husband’s death. On television, she’d looked older than her 43 years. In my office, months later, she looked younger.
I was wary even before she said her first words to me. Boulder has no shortage of yoga studios, bicycle shops or psychotherapists. If she were seeking help to cope with her loss, she would have chosen a different shrink. The likelihood that Rick Conway’s widow would show up in my Walnut Street office? Those were Lotto odds.
She sat on the sofa. “I’m Dana Powers … Conway,” she said as introduction, adding the additional surname to the one she’d used to make her appointment. “This is more difficult than I thought it would be. And I thought it would be really hard.”
Her opening felt practiced, as though she’d rehearsed it on the drive down the hill from her summer place up Magnolia. I had once toured the tasteful digs with my wife during a fund-raiser for the Women’s Wilderness Institute.
I played along. I said, “How can I be of help?”
She uncrossed her legs. Recrossed them. She looked at me, forcing a flat smile. She glanced away, shaking her dangling foot from side to side. I thought nothing of any of it. The beginning of psychotherapy is an awkward dance.
I was holding on to a far-fetched hope that this was psychotherapy.
“I kept telling myself I shouldn’t have come,” she said.
I thought: Then go. It’s not too late to change your mind.
“You know what he used to say to the kids?” she said. “He used to tell them that nobody gets hurt in the air. Uh, wrong.” Her eyes glistened with tears at the mention of the kids. My memory was that she had a boy and a girl, college age.
I didn’t know what “getting hurt in the air” meant. In therapy, context lags content. In life, bad news is always a step faster than I am. It would all catch up with me soon enough.
That’s when she pivoted and said the words that made me pray that she was crazy: “You know about them, right?”
Her heel popped out of her fancy pump. I couldn’t ignore the fact that she was much too thin. Or that, in her flirty sundress and short linen jacket, she was not dressed to visit a Boulder therapist. Her outfit indicated another destination.
The swinging shoe slid from her toes and fell to the floor. Oh, God. Do a Venn diagram of (a) women with $500 pumps who get quality pedicures, and (b) paranoid schizophrenics, and you will find precious little overlap between the circles.
Dana Conway wasn’t psychotic.
She said: “I know you know. Just admit it.”
The frustration in her voice was palpable. I wondered what she read in my eyes. Acknowledgment? Terror? The old blank slate?
“I also know you know what they do. Rick? He called them the Enders.”
The Enders? I knew them as the Death Angels. The tag came from an entrepreneur I’d treated in the months before Rick Conway went missing. At great expense, my patient had hired a secretive organization to kill him should injury or illness leave him in a more debilitated state than he chose to endure. The death enforcers’ obligation was to end his life in a way that would raise no suspicion. My patient never sugarcoated the arrangement; he had signed up to be murdered.
During his final session, my patient informed me that the Death Angels were aware that he had disclosed their existence to me. They also knew, he cautioned, that I had a family. He instructed me to destroy my records. He didn’t have to warn me never to mention them to anyone.
The Death Angels discharged their commitment to him less than a week later.
I had been on guard since, dreading the day the Death Angels might come calling.
That day had apparently arrived. I was sitting with the widow of a man whose death, I suspected, had been arranged by the same posse. Dana Conway had somehow learned about the organization of killers, and she was eager to chat about them, with me.
She either didn’t understand the danger, or she was reckless.
Of those two options, I had no favorite.
She said: “I was afraid you would be like this. O.K. You know them as the Death Angels. Same group. Will you help me? No one else has any experience with this.”
That’s because people who have experience with this are called “deceased.”
The widow knew my dead patient’s personal nickname for the assassins. The list of people who could have divulged that information was short. My patient’s son, Adam, 18 when his father died, knew that fact. So did my dead patient’s friend, a lawyer named Jimmy Lee. Easy enough to find out, I thought.
Ending the pretense that this was therapy, I called a friend on my cell. Raoul Estevez, like Rick Conway, was rich and connected. For over a decade, they had poured obscene amounts of money into the same Boulder venture capital pools.
While I placed the call, Rick’s widow stared at me as though she feared I would vanish if she blinked.
I replied to Raoul’s energetic “Hola,” with: “It’s me, I only have a second, got a question. You know a lawyer in the metro area, maybe runs in your crowd, does reinsurance litigation? Somebody you may have met in —”
“My crowd?” Raoul laughed. “Jimmy Lee? Is that who you mean? He’s at Hart & Browns —”
“Him, thanks,” I said. “I’ll call you later.” I killed the call. If Raoul knew Jimmy Lee, then Rick Conway knew Jimmy Lee.
Dana’s eyes went wide. “You’re thinking Jimmy told me? Really? No.” She shook her head. “Not him. You don’t want to know. Trust me.”
You put my family in jeopardy. Trusting you is not an option.
I leaned forward, elbows on my knees. I waited until we locked eyes. “What I am about to say is not therapy,” I said. “It is advice. I don’t give much advice, because most of the time I don’t pretend to know what people should do with their lives. But I know what you should do: Walk away from what you think you know. Never mention the Enders, or the Death Angels.”
“No ‘but.’ Are you in any legal difficulty because of your husband’s death?”
“Are you comfortable financially? Set for life?”
“Walk away. Your husband died in a crash. Now walk away.”
She reached into her bag and retrieved a sheet of paper. “You don’t understand,” she said. “I can’t.”
I didn’t care about her evidence. I gave it a cursory glance. Lab results. The laboratory was in Bern, Switzerland. I am a Ph.D. doctor, not an M.D. doctor. The highlighted numbers were gibberish to me. I assumed they confirmed some serious illness. I said, “Your husband was sick?”
“Rick? Actually, not that sick yet, but …”
But it wasn’t for her to decide. The way it worked was that Rick alone determined how ill he’d be when the guillotine blade fell.
Someone pounded on the door. Hard, twice. She jumped as she tried to contain a gasp. I froze. The door to the hallway was always locked. “Are you expecting someone?” I said.
She mouthed, “No,” as the pounding repeated.
I told myself, The Death Angels wouldn’t knock. “Leave,” I said. “Use the back door.” It led to the neglected yard. “Then run.”
“They’ll find me. If not today, tomorrow. You don’t get it. I’m not here as Rick’s widow, wondering what happened. I’m here as an Enders’… client.”
Fresh jeopardy permeated every cell of my body. “You are —”
“Rick and I signed up together a long time ago, after he had that scare on K2.”
I said, “And you’ve reached your … threshold, as well?”
She lifted the paper. “The lab results are mine. But Rick and I added a … restriction to the agreement. Regardless of our health, the second of us to reach threshold could not be … killed until 60 days after our youngest turned 21. My daughter, my baby, turned 21 53 days ago. I’m not ready. That’s why I need your help. There is no one else.”
The pounding resumed. A voice I didn’t recognize called out, “Dr. Gregory?”
That’s me, Alan Gregory. I walked across the room, opened the door. A young man was straining to look past me into the office.
“Hello, Adam,” I said to my dead patient’s son. We’d met once. He had grown into his father’s clone, thin and angular with thick hair and blue eyes that seemed lit by halogen.
“Hi, Dr. Gregory. I’m sorry to bust in. But …”
The puzzle was solved: Adam had revealed to Dana that I’d learned about the Death Angels from his father. I was left to figure out how to tell Adam I could not be of any help.
I could feel Dana moving into place near me.
Adam darted forward suddenly, squeezing into the office. As he turned, I spotted a pistol the size of a bazooka in his right hand.
My eyes jumped from the gun to his eyes.
He said, “Hey, Dana.” He rested his left hand on the side of her face.
The moment was electric. Aggressive? Erotic? Was Adam there to protect her, or to kill her? Was he there as someone who knew what it was like to watch a parent murdered, or had he crossed over and become one of the executioners? I could not tell.
He raised the gun.
I waited to see where he would point it.
He leaned forward. Into Dana’s hair, barely audible to me, he said, “Did you tell him about the baby?”
Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/opinion/02white.html