[Excerpted from the book Speaking of Murder, © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.]
Do you ever get the feeling that you really need help?
I don’t mean help to open a jar of peanut butter, clean your garage, hold the ladder while you clean the gutters, or tell you what ingredient is missing when you’re cooking pasta sauce from scratch.
I don’t even mean if you’re elderly and some Boy Scout helps you cross the street, as wonderful as that might be.
No—the question is, do you need help to be a better human being so you can make more money, a lot more money, get promoted, be more successful, be more popular, make friends, get laid, or find The One and fall in love and make it stick?
Thousands of people—salesmen, athletes, ministers, ex-politicians, fading movie stars, academics and others—have become motivational speakers, metaphysical thought leaders, life coaches, self-appointed gurus, personal performance trainers, even cult leaders. They are ready to help change who you are—as long as your pockets are deep enough or your credit card limits are high enough to pay them well for their time.
Some are members of SHAM, the Self-Help and Actualization Movement; others, of the Get Rich Fast crowd. They crossbreed. Many you know by name—from real TV shows or bought-and-paid-for infomercials, public appearances, best-selling books, CDs, and lapel buttons and photos and bumper stickers, souvenirs and bobblehead dolls.
The Movement, so-called as if it were holy, might have gained its first foothold in America almost a century ago, when Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, became a blueprint for those losing their way on the path of life, and in need of scattered Hansel-and-Gretel breadcrumbs to help them on their journey.
I read that book as a teen, thinking the answer was far too simple for such a long book. I offer it without charging you an arm and leg: If you want to win friends and influence people, stop being an asshole.
Why am I talking about this industry, which earns nearly ten billion dollars every year? Because recently my business company, Milan Security, did a job for the GMSA—the Global Motivational Speakers Association, chock-full of the few who can successfully give self-help speeches.
The GMSA holds its major convention in a different city each year. A third of the speakers talk professionally for a living—sometimes a most handsome living, especially if they appear regularly on television, raking in six-figure speaking fees once only reserved for former United States presidents. Their shtick is telling everyone how they can become uber-rich, famous, popular, or adored. The other two-thirds are wannabe speakers and gurus hoping that if they just brush shoulders with superstars, some magic might stick to them. More likely, it’ll be bullshit rubbing off.
Most speakers tell you how to be successful in business, in life, in sports, and in love. Of course, if they just flat-out told you not to be an asshole, and you listened to them, they’d all be out of business.
Their most recent GMSA whoop-de-do was held in Cleveland, which is why I got involved—hauled on board for an entire weekend and getting paid nowhere near what top-rung speakers earn for fifty minutes’ work—to augment the security of the venerable Renaissance Hotel, looming over Public Square. It’s one hundred years old, within walking distance of Lake Erie, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Cuyahoga River that twists and turns its way through downtown, and just steps away from the Horseshoe Casino. The facilities are spacious and pleasant, the rooms clean, with the most spectacular views either of the square itself, the Cuyahoga River, or the lake, and close to some of the Midwest’s best restaurants.
My assistant came along with me. He’s Kevin O’Bannion, preferring to be called K.O., both for his initials and for his ability to score knockouts frequently whenever he gets physical with others who only look bigger and stronger than he does. That’s one of the reasons I keep him around. He fights better than I ever did, and if he happens to get tagged a time or two, his youth heals him quickly. Thirty years my junior, his teenage captivity in juvenile detention and three army combat tours in the Middle East taught him to handle any situations that might arise.
The Global Motivational Speakers Association is rife with self-anointed superstars, desperate wannabes, and a scruffy crew of never-gonna-bes all milling around the hotel, along with the glassy-eyed attendees looking for the fairy dust to change them from losers in business and life into wealthy entrepreneurs because they’re told nobody, but nobody, works for someone else—hoping some maven notices them, buys them a drink, or takes them to bed.
Or perhaps all three.
When hosting a large convention of celebrities and hangers-on, the Renaissance Hotel goes through a great deal of planning and preparation before anything happens.
And that’s where I came in.
Ask Americans what they’re afraid of, and one fear is head and shoulders above the others. Not heights, snakes, germs, fire, claustrophobia, the dark, or even the terror of lack of sanitation that sends you outside behind a bush rather than daring to sit down on a public toilet.
Most people are scared stiff of public speaking.
It doesn’t frighten me—six foot three and two hundred thirty pounds on a good day—but then I rarely speak to more than six people at one time. I’m a private investigator, emphasis on “private.” I’m also discreet, if you need someone quietly poking around in anything you’re too nervous to examine on your own.
I was explaining all this nervousness of speaking in public to my “significant other.” I call her that because we aren’t married, so I can’t say “wife” or “spouse,” and at our ages, there’s no way we can refer to one another as “boyfriend and girlfriend” without sounding like teenagers on a corny TV sitcom. In any event, her name is Tobe Blaine, and she is a homicide detective sergeant with the Cleveland Police Department.
The evening after I’d been interviewed for the job, Tobe and I were having dinner at Corleone’s, on the West Side, a restaurant situated at one corner of a strip mall. Just driving by it, you’d never know how elegant it is inside, nor how good the food is. Both the manager and the waitress greeted Tobe by name, so I knew she’d been there several times before.
Corleone’s also boasts a superb wine list.
I’m not yet a wine-drinker. For most of my adult years I was a beer guy—Cleveland is one of the best beer towns in America—until Tobe came along and started introducing me to beverages with which I’d had little or no experience. Single malt scotch, hand-tended bourbon made in very small batches, and gin martinis that are delicious but too hard to handle.
“I don’t understand,” Tobe was saying. She had little problem with martinis and was sipping hers, garnished as usual with a lemon peel twist and not the standard olive. “When hotels have big conventions, they have their own security department, and if they need more, they hire local police departments to look out for them, so nobody gets totally shitfaced in the bar and then trashes their room like they were twenty-year-old rock stars.”
I said, “They have celebrities coming, too.”
She snickered. “I forgot you never even heard of the Kardashians, so you sure wouldn’t know Kanye West.”
“I do know who the Kardashians are,” I said. “I just can’t tell them apart.”
“Nobody can,” she said. “So the P.D. protects the peasants who show up there to spend money, and you take care of the big shots who make the money?”
“Something like that.”
“Interesting job, Milan—kissing the tushies of famous celebrities. I only have to butt heads with stone-cold killers.”
“Lucky you, Tobe. Whoever butts heads with you loses.”
“That,” Tobe Blaine said, “is why I get the big bucks.” She opened her menu. “I’m starved. Let’s eat.”
We had a great dinner, but I kept running over in my head the meeting I’d had that morning in my office with the head of security at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel.
Her name was Swati S. Sathe, a handsome fifty-ish woman of East Indian descent who had a classy hairdo and subtle but attractive make-up, and if she’d ever smoked a fifty-cent cigar in her life like the hotel dicks in old movies used to, I doubt anyone ever saw her do it.
“I was a police detective in India—Bangalore,” she said when I asked how she wound up with her present job. “When my husband and I moved here for his business, I applied to the Renaissance Hotel. They were interested in a security boss, and the position sounded easier to handle than a city of more than five million people.”
K.O., seated at his desk near the window, observed, “Nobody ever said Cleveland is easy.”
She looked at him. “That’s why I’m here. The Global Motivational Speakers Association’s having its convention here next month, with some of the biggest names in the business. We expect at least two thousand people, and we’ll need extra support.”
“Are you expecting trouble, Ms. Sathe?”
“I’m expecting there won’t be any trouble, thanks to extra security.” She cleared her throat. “If you take this assignment, Mr. Jacovich, you’ll have to watch some of those prestigious guests more closely than others.”
“Why is that? Have any of them had death threats?”
“If you’re famous,” Swati Sathe shrugged, “really famous, there’s always a small fringe group that hates your guts, mostly because of your success and their lack of it. The biggest name scheduled to show up,” she said, removing a list from her jacket pocket, “is Tommy Triller.”
I said, “He’s a singer?”
That made K.O. laugh. “Have you been living in a coal mine, Milan? Tommy Triller is a motivational speaker. He’s huge!”
“Nobody made any speeches in my coal mine, K.O.”
Ms. Sathe hid her smile with her hand. “Triller has written fifteen books, he’s made six yearly half-hour infomercials that air everywhere, and also a few real TV specials a year. He packs tens of thousands of fans into seminars all over the country and in Canada, too, and sells five- and seven-day retreats, coaching programs, and other events where there are all sorts of inspiring things to do—and he charges about seven thousand dollars to be there.”
K.O. looked disappointed. “No T-shirts?”
“Tons of them with his picture on them,” Ms. Sathe said seriously. “Also buttons, bumper stickers, photographs, ballpoint pens, and sayings of his, framed or on plaques that are supposed to magically change you from a washout into a superhero. The celebrities want to create a feeding frenzy—a stampede to the vendors’ room at the Center to draw convention-goers with money to them like moths to a flame. It’s all meant as a transformation.”
“I’m wondering, Ms. Sathe,” I said, “how you came to us for what’s little more than bodyguarding. There are plenty of companies in town that provide that.”
“Frankly, the company we’d contacted first chose to bow out.”
She shrugged. “I didn’t ask why. I started looking around for a replacement—and it’s you.”
“Again, why us?”
“Frankly, a high-up in your police department highly recommended you.”
“A high-up? Not the police chief?”
“No, Mr. Jacovich. They turned me on to someone in the homicide division, and she gave us your name.”
“Detective Sergeant Blaine?”
“No—someone higher up than that,” she said. “Lieutenant McHargue, I believe.”
That caught me off-guard. Lieutenant Florence McHargue, Tobe’s boss, wouldn’t recommend me for anything except a one-way ticket to Timbuktu.
“And you want us for all four days?” I said.
“And,” K.O. broke in, “to pay special attention to Tommy Triller?”
“He’s the one speaker who is most successful—he banks approximately a hundred million dollars annually.”
“That’s more than I make in a week,” K.O. said. “For selling T-shirts?”
“For selling hope,” Ms. Sathe said, “and marketing skills. And T-shirts.”
I said, “Is this extra security all about him?”
“For the most part. He’s asked the convention for extra security—and nobody has explained why to me.”
“If I made a hundred mil a year,” K.O. said, “I’d want extra security, too.”
“True,” she said, checking her list again. “But there are others. You have a TV set—so you know who Dr. Ben is.”
Naturally I knew who Dr. Ben is. Doesn’t everybody? Dr. Ben Mayo, sporting a gleaming pate and overdoing an old-boy yahoo drawl, has his own eponymous daily TV show, now in its twelfth year, featuring an endless parade of guests whining about their problems, hoping that within sixty minutes he’ll identify the cause of their misery and pompously pronounce a four-sentence cure that makes them feel better about themselves so they can go home and sin or suffer no more. This is the driving force behind his inspirational self-help books, courses, web sites, apps, and YouTube videos, and his fees for endorsing everything from weight loss pills to rehab centers to used cars.
Mayo, with a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina and a doctorate from Michigan State, had been a psychologist for several years, zeroing in on marriage issues. But once battling his way onto television and with the multi-millions he pockets annually, he now deals with business entrepreneurs whose careers are threatened, hotshot salesmen stuck in no-sell slumps, obnoxious neighbors with barking dogs, meddling in-laws, drugs and booze and anorexics and bulimics, dysfunctional families, out-of-control children, and people who weigh nine hundred pounds and can’t haul themselves out of bed.
I said, “Will Triller and Dr. Mayo need more protection than the other two thousand attendees?”
“Everyone calls him Dr. Ben,” she went on. “He and Triller are the biggest celebrities in this particular field.” She made a note on her paper. “I’ve brought you a complete list of the attendees and a separate list of—”
“The big shots?” K.O. asked.
“Mr. O’Bannion, there are many so-called ‘big shots’ in this group if you happen to be in the self-help business.” She studied K.O. “You don’t look like you need any help.”
“Mr. O’Bannion,” I said with more weight than necessary, since his under-thirty smart-assness gets on my nerves on a daily basis, “needs all the help he can get—but not from spending his last nickel on snake-oil salesmen.”
“Maybe,” Swati Sathe said, “but you won’t be paying them; they’ll pay you.”
“I thought the hotel was hiring us.”
She shook her head. “Triller asked the Global Motivational Speakers for extra security—and since the organization’s headquarters are in Minneapolis and nowhere near Cleveland, they asked me to do their legwork.” She raised her eyebrows. “Asked isn’t quite right. They’re bringing a lot of business to this hotel, so they demanded we find someone. But you’ll be working for them, not us—watching over the biggest of the big shots.” She picked her purse up and pushed her chair back from across my desk. “The executive director of the GMSA will be in town the day after tomorrow to meet you. He’ll be more specific.”
“About what?” K.O. asked.
“About everything,” Sathe said, “including how much he’s going to pay you.”
* * *
The Cuyahoga River—Cuyahoga is an Indian word meaning Crooked River, which means it’s the Crooked River River—flows right by my second-floor office in The Flats. During all but the worst weather, enormous ore boats navigate the hairpin turn where my building is, Collision Bend. It’s so named because in the old days, big boats heading in opposite directions to and from Lake Erie, nearly a mile farther north, would often crash into each other. Now, though it’s infrequent, they still do.
My view encompasses where the Cleveland Indians play baseball, Progressive Field, which used to be called Jacobs Field, more popularly “The Jake,” and the Quicken Loans Arena, “The Q,” where the Cavaliers play basketball, which was built as the Gund Arena. I miss the old “Jake” name, as everyone else does—and most still call it that.
It’s a good idea they changed the Gund Arena’s name, though. Saying “Gund Arena” aloud, quickly, always sounded like a sexually transmitted disease.
I was at the window enjoying the brightness of mid-October when K.O. came out of the john. “Ever been inside the Renaissance Hotel?” I said.
“Never had a reason to go there.”
“Well, you’ll get a good look at it the day after tomorrow.”
“Will I have to wear a tie?”
“Wear what you want—if you prefer looking like a bum.”
“Well, you hardly ever wear a tie.” He slid behind his desk. “But considering your ties, I wouldn’t blame you.”
He’s correct; my ties are awful. Tobe Blaine gave me a beautiful Jerry Garcia tie for my birthday, but so far I’ve had no occasion to wear it. Tomorrow might be its lucky day.
Tobe and I have been together for a year and a half—my longest romance since my marriage, which ended badly a quarter century ago. It works because she understands that what I do for a living sometimes gets sticky. She’s a Cleveland cop, but unlikely to be involved in the GMSA’s annual get-together. Her area is murder.
And nobody ever gets murdered at a GMSA convention—unless they get talked to death.
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[Excerpted from the book Speaking of Murder, © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.]