Surviving PI school

In April 2002, I officially became a registered (though unemployed) private investigator in the state of Virginia. Working as a PI will have to wait--possibly a long time; I'm not sure it would be easy to find someone willing to hire a complete beginner who can only work part time due to writing deadlines. But the class was well worth it as research alone; and some of my class experiences may eventually make it into a mystery.

Take our surveillance exercise.

We had our class on surveillance on a Thursday night, the next to last day of class. The instructor used to do surveillance while in the military and now surveils for an undisclosed entity. Seriously undisclosed; he had an entire class of aspiring PIs trying to pry it out of him, and he never dropped a usable clue.

And it was a great class--only an overview; obviously you can't learn all there is to know about surveillance in four hours; in fact, I suspect you pick up most of the really important stuff on the job. But for four hours we soaked in surveillance lore--mobile and fixed surveillance; one-, two- and three- person techniques for following someone on foot; surveillance by car; changing your profile and that of your car.

And war stories, not just for fun, though they were, but also to illustrate really stupid stuff you shouldn't do on surveillance. Or really tedious examples of why surveillance isn't always exciting.

And communications, including slang. Like heat. If the "subject" (called a "rabbit" if you're doing a training exercise) spots you, you are "made"--or "burned" or "toast" or "nuclear" or "extra crispy"--any term referring to heat or cooking will do. In an ongoing surveillance, it's important to be able to estimate how "hot" you are. This ranges from 0--the subject has never, ever seen you, not even a glimpse of the back of your head in the distance--to 10--the subject now knows your face better than this own. And tricks of the trade--like when you're tailing someone by car, don't attach yourself to his bumper like a trailer--hang back a few car lengths, and don't always make the same turn he does if it's obvious where he's going, especially if you know the area and there's a good parallel route.

So Saturday morning, on the last day of class, we were supposed to show up at 9 a.m. ready for surveillance. Cell phones charged and in hand; ADC map books primed. Cars gassed up; change for toll booths and parking garages handy. Disguises at the ready, especially hats for in the car. Good walking shoes in case of a foot pursuit. We were psyched!

There were three teams, two with four people and one with five. Each team began by interviewing a school faculty member pretending to be the owner of a small software business worried about the possibility of industrial espionage. We knew there would be three rabbits (graduates of past classes, several of them now working in surveillance). My team's rabbit was suspected of buying secrets from the other company--his contribution to a development project had suddenly become uncharacteristically brilliant. We were given a description of our subject-- 5'7", dark hair, Van Dyke beard, often seen wearing a burgundy sweatshirt, a NASCAR hat, jeans, and white sneakers. And of his vehicle: a dark blue Durango, license XYZ 1234 (okay, I changed that). And we were told that on Saturdays, he customarily had breakfast in the coffee shop of a hotel in the Fair Oaks shopping center area, usually leaving by five or ten minutes past ten.

It was 9:45! Our team raced out into the parking lot, divided into two carloads--Don and Fran would begin as the lead team, entering the coffee shop to acquire our suspect. Linda and I would be the backup team. We would not park together at the mall, we would communicate by cell phone. Any questions?

"Yes," I said. "What's a Durango, anyway?"

(For those who, like me, don't obsess about cars, it's a really big SUV.)

We took off. Linda drove her aging beige Taurus, while Fran, by an odd coincidence, was driving a newer, spiffier beige Taurus. We decided Don's truck was rather conspicuous, and perhaps the Star Trek Academy rear window decal on my silver Honda Civic made it way too easy to spot.

Linda had apparently been paying close attention during the parts of the class on subterfuge and wiliness. And knew the nearby roads; we even took a back way to our start point. By the time we finished wandering through the lot, anyone watching us probably suspected we were up to something; but since we were so far from the lot in which our rabbit was supposed to be parked, we doubted he would be alarmed, unless he had binoculars. (Okay, so I have a natural tendency toward the trailer hitch style of pursuit. I'm working on it.)

The wily Linda could only, with difficulty, be persuaded to park in the lot next to the lot in which the other half of our team reported spotting the Durango. Since there were no other cars in our area of the lot, which was quite a distance from the stores, we decided that we would pretend that we had stopped so Linda could get out for a smoke and we could argue over maps. We spread our maps out over the trunk, waved around a local real estate freebie booklet, and pretended to be lost and arguing over which way to go.

Until my cell phone rang. It was Fran. The rabbit was on the move! He was heading for route 50. We got into our car and gave chase--but indirectly, so he wouldn't be spooked by two cars pulling out right after him. Unfortunately, our route was so indirect that we couldn't see him or the rest of our team.

"He's turning onto fifty," Fran reported.

"East or west?" I asked.


"Which way on 50?" I shouted. "East or west?"

More static. Quite a bit of static, and finally, when we were at the drop dead point, where we had to turn east or west, we finally got an audible answer from Fran. Not, however, a clear answer.

"Toward the city."

City? We were very far from D.C., which I think of as the city. Maybe she meant Fairfax. But which direction was downtown Fairfax from here? We made a guess, and headed away from the school. Bingo! We were right.

We were also very far behind. For the next fifteen or twenty minutes, we drove along, considerably behind the cutting edge of the pursuit, occasionally receiving terse directions when the rabbit was turning, and the occasional anxious query:

"Where ARE you?"

We'd report our cross street, and some landmarks they might remember, and deduced, from the ensuing silence, that we were not close enough to be of use in whatever was happening up there with our suspect.

Eventually we caught up with them. Just as the rabbit made a dart into a left turn lane, which Don didn't think it wise to imitate.

"He's turning left onto Lawyer's Road--can you take him?" Fran asked.

We could, yes. But turning directly after him did not seem prudent to the wily Linda; instead, she made a left turn into a parking lot further along the block, got back out on the street, and then made a right onto Lawyers. The rabbit had made a left turn into the parking lot of a Post Office in the meantime, so we hoped we'd be able to catch up with him. But in the interest of subterfuge, Linda did not feel it wise to turn directly into the Post Office parking lot, especially since it would require slamming on her brakes. We overshot, turned around in a driveway, and came back where we could make a right into the Post Office. However, we were so wired that this still required sudden braking, which the guy behind us resented intensely. And he could hold a grudge, that guy. As we were driving into the parking lot, the rabbit was driving out, so we called this news to Don and Fran, who took off down Lawyers Road in pursuit while we tried to extricate ourselves from the chaos that is a Post Office parking lot on a Saturday morning. An effort made all the more difficult by the guy who resented our braking; he chose to stand in the middle of the parking lot with his arms folded, looking at us and mumbling; it wasn't easy for Linda to find a way to back out without hitting him, but she resisted the temptation either to run over him or to get out and pick a fight. In the interests of remaining unobtrusive, of course; not because she was afraid of him.

We then took off down Lawyer's Road, flying ten or twenty miles above the speed limit, and eventually caught up with Fran and Don. Who were trapped behind a van so slow-moving, and yet so adept at changing lanes whenever it looked as if they could pass him, that all four of us become convinced that he was a confederate of the rabbit; and we took down the van's license and a detailed description.

About this time, the intermittently functioning cell phones began giving us real problems. I recalled, alas, that a friend who lives in the area has had difficulty finding any cell company whose phones work at his house. Conversation went something like this:

"Do you have visual contact with the subject?"


"Do you have a visual on the subject?"

"You're breaking up, repeat."

"Can you SEE him?"

"No, we thought you had him."

"But you're the lead car."

"No, you're the lead car, remember?"

"Are you sure?"

"We're right behind you--don't look! He might notice!"

"How could he notice if he's not near enough for us to see him?"

We did, finally, all pass the van and catch up to the blue Durango--thank goodness for the highly visible flag logo in his back window--and were able to communicate long enough to agree that since by this time Don and Fran were undoubtedly burned--positively crispy, in fact--that Linda and I would take the lead.

Oh joy! We were, at least, the lead car! I was happily tracking the subject, and trying to keep Fran informed what he was doing, when the rabbit suddenly darted across three lanes of traffic to make a right turn.

"That's it," Linda said. "We're toast."

"Turn right on West Ox Road!" I shouted over the phone to Fran.

"What?" my cell phone squawked.

"We're so totally burned," Linda muttered.

"Turn right on West Ox Road!"

"We're absolutely nuclear."


"Right! West Ox! Right! West Ox! Right! West Ox!" I shouted, until the phone finally went dead.

"He's heading back for the mall," Linda said. "We'll cut through on Franklin Farm and intersect him."

Which we did, thanks to Linda's knowledge of the local roads. We were, of course, convinced that the abrupt turn he made when we spotted him was inspired by his dismay at seeing us again. We followed him onto Chantilly Road, and thence to Sully Plaza--the shopping center down the road from school. A place with which I was tolerably familiar, having run errands there on class nights for the past several weeks. I felt encouraged that we might be getting somewhere, Unfortunately, the wily Linda felt it would be too obvious to turn in behind him, so we went around to the other entrance to the shopping center. Which required waiting through a really long light. A typical long light; did I mention that the whole area in which we were surveilling is positively infested with insidious, half-hour long red lights? Not to mention the Saturday morning shopping traffic, now--at 11 a.m.--at its height. We tried to change the look of our car occasionally; but since the only practical way we had of doing this was for me to crouch on the floor, along with our unused disguises and maps and a nicely varied and well-aged collection of car floor junk, this didn't last long.

We spotted the rabbit in the shopping center, but couldn't easily pull in near him; by the time we circled back, he was gone. We spotted and lost him another time or two in the shopping center, and Linda became convinced that we were completely hot--about a 15 on the 1-10 scale.

"Look at that," she said. "He waved to us as he passed. We are so burned."

We spent the final hour hour or so futilely prowling nearby shopping centers and residential enclaves, exchanging reports with Don and Fran, who had also lost the rabbit, and were similarly prowling. We finally found him again, making the turn to go back to the school for our debriefing.

But believe it or not, we didn't do all that badly on the surveillance, for rank beginners--although the instructor did say that he recommended we all cut way back on the caffeine next time. Apparently we had all been a lot less obvious than some previous students, who could not avoid staring fixedly at their rabbits from overly close range. In fact, though all of us were completely sure that we had been spotted in the first five minutes, the rabbits only spotted about half of us by the end of the exercise. Our car wasn't ever spotted, a tribute to Linda's wiliness, I suppose; although I think it might have been more interesting if we'd managed to spend more time close enough that he'd actually have a fighting chance of spotting us. Our team didn't get to witness that actual hand-off, but then neither did either of the others. So there.

Still, we survived; we didn't kill each other, though the temptation was fierce at times; and we all passed the exam and went out to lunch to celebrate. And when I suggested that it would be fun to recruit some rabbits and do some more volunteer surveillance training exercises, quite a few of my classmates agreed. So if you see me careening down the road shouting into a cell phone with my eyes fixed on a vehicle ahead of me, don't assume I'm in the throes of road rage--it's research. I'm learning surveillance.