Private-Sector Intelligence with Clair George
With summer fast approaching, I stepped up contact with Baron von Biggleswurm.
Three days before his son was scheduled to arrive in Germany, the baron was rushed to hospital with an abdominal complaint.
Within a three month period he had tripped and split open his hand (requiring 38 stitches), suffered der grippe and now this.
I phoned our client Countess Bossi to keep her apprised. “Biggleswurm is unwell again.”
“Ah, that’s nice. Any other good news?”
“Countess, I must ask you—you aren't doing voodoo on this poor man, are you?”
Moments later, I put the same question to Lara, to whom I also supplied regular updates.
“You know,” she said, “he has some Brazilian friends who do this. I remember they were involved with witchcraft. I asked them, ‘Oh, white magic?’ And they said, ‘No, black magic.’ Maybe my ex-husband owes them money.”
A few days later, I reached Biggleswurm.
“Oh dear,” he told me. “It was a kidney stone. Very painful. But it passed.”
“Here’s the good news,” I said. “I’m in Europe.”
“Monaco. I have the use of a friend’s apartment for most of the summer.”
“Ah, Monaco. Plastic materialism. I know it well.”
We coordinated schedules; the baron concluded by saying he did not intend to allow his son to return home at the end of his summer stay.
Upon hearing this, the countess ordered me to Geneva to warn Lara and prepare an escape strategy.
“Restaurant Roberto,” I instructed the cabbie at Geneva airport. Lara arrived ten minutes after me.
In between gazpacho and ravioli stuffed with peppers and eggplant, we got down to business.
“Your ex-husband’s lawyer is advising him to get a psychiatrist to testify before a German court that the boy would be better off with his father. He’s still saying he might try to keep your son in Germany.”
“He’s done it before,” said Lara. “The police were called.”
“Let’s assume he learned a lesson from that experience. This time he’s trying to involve the German court. The good news is, he has invited me to join him.”
“Amazing,” said Lara.
“I’m his new best friend,” I said. “He thinks I’m a gift from God.”
“Well, you are a gift from God,” said Lara. “But not his gift. You’re my gift.”
Uh, your mother sent me, not God.
“Problem is, Biggleswurm is so daffy, even he doesn’t know what he’s going to do next. But when he knows, or thinks he knows, he tells me. Chances are, he’ll stay closeted in his castle. If it looks like he’s going to hold the boy in Germany, I’ll take a trip up there to get the lay of the land, figure out an escape route. And then, if necessary, I’ll go back and get him.”
I flew Swissair back to a rainy Nice and briefed the countess over veal Milanese, asparagus, French beans, small potatoes and a fine Chianti.
The intrigue exhilarated her.
“Lara is so vulnerable,” the countess lamented. “From the beginning, her love life has been a disaster. First, she fell head-over-heels over a Paraguayan musician—he used to play guitar at restaurants in Barcelona. She was so in love, she said she was going to marry him. The count, bless him, smelled a rat. He hired detectives to learn everything about the guitar player.
"They found he was married and had three children. We had somebody produce the evidence for Lara. She cried. And then the count arranged for the man to be paid off, so he wouldn’t bother us again. We thought Lara learned her lesson. But no, then came Biggleswurm. The count saw right through him, said he was nothing. But would Lara listen? No. She inherited the count’s stubbornness, and mine, too, but without our good sense.”
I listened sympathetically. More than anything, the countess needed somebody to listen.
“All she talks about with me is the weather,” the countess continued. “Can you imagine? I am her mother. But whenever I say something about my grandson, she says, ‘Someone is helping me.’ I feel like telling her that I am behind this! I am the one who pays!”
In my dreams the night before, I was already on the road; a rolling motion that jerked me awake over and over again until a fabulous sunrise heralded the morning, a big orange beach ball shimmering upon a glass-like Med.
Pierre turned up at 7:30. French by residency and demeanor, American by birth, Pierre had been a Monte Carlo casino floor manager, now doing odd jobs, driving persons like me on odd missions.
I didn’t want to drive seven hours each way on roads I’d never driven before; with Pierre at the wheel I could distance myself from the perils of Italian roads, signage, and enjoy the scenery.
Destination: St. Moritz.
Objective: Meet Baron von Biggleswurm and assess his forever fluctuating state of mind, learn his plans for the coming months and determine if a rescue (of the contessa's grandson) was likely to be necessary this summer.
We ascended into the Alps behind Monaco to pick up the autoroute and its 100-plus tunnels toward Genoa.
“This is the situation,” I said to Pierre. “Doing undercover work, you stick to the truth as much as possible. Truth is, I met you in Monaco, you just lost your job, you’re looking for things to do, and you agreed to drive me to St. Moritz.”
“Sounds like the truth,” Pierre agreed.
“You know me as a book publisher," I continued.
"Of course. We’re going to meet a German baron and I’m going to talk to him about publishing his book. He has very lofty ideas about himself. He believes he’s going to write a bestseller that will give birth to a new age renaissance. You may have an urge to laugh when he speaks. Don’t laugh. Be impressed. That will be the hardest part of this assignment.”
“No problem.” Pierre paused. “Are you going to publish this German guy’s book?”
“He thinks I will.”
“There must be a reason for this.”
“You don’t need to know it.
We rolled into town about four p.m. and checked into the Kulm. Descending to the lobby after dumping our bags, Pierre impulsively pressed a button that said bad something. “You want to see the pool?” he asked.
It was bad all right. As the doors slid open we came face-to-face with Baron von Biggleswurm, he wearing a bathrobe, looking down his nose through granny glasses. “You made it!”
“Baron—you look great!”
He did look better than usual, his face bronzed from mountain sun.
“Yaa, yaa—the air. All the great thinkers come here. I went to the top of the mountain today. Good for my brain.”
Biggleswurm toured us around the pool and spa. “I’ve been coming here since I was a little boy.” He sniffed. “Of course, it has declined. This terrible mercantile mentality, everything based on money.” He shook his head in contempt. “How long do you stay?”
“Until tomorrow,” I said.
“Only one day?”
“I’d like to spend all week in your company,” I lied, “but Pierre has to be back Monday for a job interview. We’re going to explore the town. What time shall we meet?”
Pierre and I strolled out of the Kulm. I spied a public telephone. “Hang on, I’ve got to make a quick call.”
“Don’t you have a phone in your room?” asked Pierre.
I wasn’t likely to call my client Countess Bossi from the Kulm’s switchboard; Biggleswurm had been a guest at that hotel for 40 years. But Pierre didn’t know about the countess. He probably thought I was calling Langley. I dropped a one-franc coin into the phone and dialed.
The countess answered.
“I’m in St. Moritz,” I said.
“Ah, good. So am I!”
“I just ran into Biggleswurm. He’s pampering himself, as usual.”
“Has he written anything?”
“You kidding? Writing is work. He’s taking the air, waiting for a finished manuscript to appear under his pillow.”
The countess laughed. “Will you come for lunch tomorrow?” (The countess was ensconced in her chalet.)
“This town is too small for us to meet, even in your chalet. I’m just calling to let you know I’m here. If you see me, you don’t know me.”
I left the countess exhilarated.
Puzzled Pierre awaited me on the street. “What exactly do you do?” he asked.
A short while later, we met the baron, at his suggestion, for a pre-dinner cocktail at the Palace Hotel, a hub to St. Moritz society. He strolled in as if he owned the mission—and a disapproving owner he was, rolling his eyes at a Cartier exhibition underway.
“I’m not sleeping well,” said Biggleswurm. “You won’t sleep tonight—it takes a week to adjust to the air.”
“But you say it’s good for writing?”
“Yaa. Good for writing, for thinking. This is where Nietzsche worked.”
“How much do you write each day?”
“Sometimes just three or four sentences.” He paused. “But they are important sentences.”
“Of course, baron.”
“You see that room?” The baron pointed. “I staged St. Moritz’s first concert in this hotel three years ago. I brought culture to this town.” He paused. “I have a new title for my book."
"Another new title?"
"Yaa. The Inevitable Collapse of Culture in the Twentieth Century. Good, yaa?”
“But isn’t your book supposed to prevent such a collapse?”
“Yaa, I have another. The Escape of Spiritual Death.”
“Much better, baron.”
“I will write here. The air.”
Biggleswurm unenthusiastically reached for the tab and, for the first time, I let him. Thirty-five bucks for wine, and he didn’t smile about it.
We walked to Patrizier Stube and sat with menus.
“Two Indians are traveling to a foreign country,” said Biggleswurm. “And when they reach Immigration, the man is asked his age. ‘I’m thirty.’” The baron wickedly mimicked an Indian accent. “But my wife is thirty-two!’” Biggleswurm laughed uproariously.
Pierre and I exchanged glances. Had we missed something?
“I have another,” said Biggleswurm. “What do Beatles carry?”
The baron looked at us for an answer. Neither Pierre nor I had a clue.
“Rolling Stones!” shouted Biggleswurm, rollicking with laughter. He winked at his wife, like, aren’t I a clever boy? “How about this one,” he continued.
Would this never end?
“How did Hitler grow so powerful?” He paused. “Because all the stupid Germans followed him. Ha-ha-ha! HA-HA-HA!”
Then, as I’d promised Pierre, the baron bottom-snorted himself into existential claptrap.
After dinner, Biggleswurm insisted on driving me to nearby Sils Maria. He showed me Nietzsche’s house, then onto Hotel Walthaus, insisting we have a nightcap.
The moment we sat, it became painfully clear this would be no normal nightcap. Biggleswurm desired to wait for a trio of musicians to perform.
A violinist, pianist and cellist appeared a quarter-hour later.
And then the real reason Biggleswurm had waited. He jumped from his chair and hijacked the cello from the cellist. His performance was painful to watch, full of grimaces and strangleholds, until he finally pushed the poor instrument aside.
Next morning, we got down to business. “Talk to me,” said Biggleswurm. “The book.”
I whipped out four typed pages, virtually the same contract I had presented to him five months earlier in Washington.
Biggleswurm held each page up to his face, as if his granny spectacles were magnifying glasses. Clause by clause, he read, completely misinterpreting the meaning of each.
He balked at the advance. It said: $7,500.
“We agreed ten thousand.”
“So be it.” I crossed out $7,500 and wrote $10,000.
“And what’s this one-third, one-third, one-third,” he asked.
“Conventional,” I said. “The advance is staggered.”
The baron did not like this. “Why not all up front?”
“I haven’t seen any writing yet.”
“But can’t you make it halves?”
“For you? Yes.” I altered the contract accordingly.
Biggleswurm continued to whine about this and that. He seemed frustrated, constipated—something needed to come out.
“How…” he finally pushed. “How do we put something in about commitment.”
Funny, because commitment was what I believed the baron needed more than anything.
“I’d be happy to tack on a rider that says Publisher will use best efforts to promote and market this book, but it’s meaningless,” I said. “As an independent publisher, the fact that I want to publish your book demonstrates that I’m committed to it. Now, please, tell me exactly what this book will be.”
The baron lapsed into solemn self-importance. He looked up the heavens, stroked his chin and spoke.
“Whenever something has enough substance and strength and message of a real possible orientation, there should be no doubt of its general receptivity. Although I don’t believe in the masses, I believe there are some intelligent people—a new opening at a very high level of new perception.”
Good thing I was about to depart. Another few hours and I might have tried to take advantage of the Kulm’s dangerously low balcony railings. Clair George once told me, The only sure way to kill someone without leaving a trace is to throw him off a building.
Pierre and I cruised out of St. Moritz and into the mountains.
“What was that all about?” Pierre scratched his head in befuddlement. “I’m more confused than before.”
“It’s simple,” I replied. “I expected you to figure it out by now.”
“Okay, I got it. You must work for someone in his family. They’re worried about him, want you to keep tabs on what he’s doing.”
I shook my head.
“His wife is worried he’s going to waste all their money?”
“Can’t you give me a hint?”
“You remember him spouting off about a mercantile mentality, how society has become warped by money, that the rich are scum?”
“Yeah, I caught that.”
“Ever heard of the Red Army Faction?"
Biggleswurm was one of its founders.”
“He was the original conceptualizer for Baader-Meinhof. In fact, it was originally supposed to be called Baader-Meinhof-Biggleswurm, but they decided he was so important they had to keep him secret. He’s anti-material, hates the Palace Hotel, all the shops and wealthy people, and wants to change the world.”
“Yeah. God, yeah! I see it now!”
“So what’s supposed to happen next?”
"For a whack. You don’t want to be near him when it happens. It could get messy.”
“Whacked? You mean murdered?”
“I prefer to call it whacked.”
Pierre drove in silence. A blessing.
“When?” he finally asked.
“A couple weeks, a couple months—the whacker decides.”
And Pierre had little else to say.