Private Sector Intelligence with Clair George
Clair and I rolled south on Massachusetts Avenue in the backseat of a Lincoln Towncar, a quiet April Sunday morning. The lushness of spring had thickened beneath a drenching rain that hadn’t quit in three days.
The Towncar veered to the curb and slowed to a halt. A light flashed red behind us.
"What did you do?" I asked our West Indian driver.
A short, sinewy bastard in a police uniform and ranger-style hat appeared in Salah's window.
"Driver's license, registration," he snapped.
He wore a mousy boxcar mustache that framed his stern words with unintentional comedy. "Step out of the car."
Clair and I exchanged glances. Five minutes into this new adventure and we were already brushing authority.
"Why did you bring a raincoat?" I asked Clair.
"It's raining," he said.
"Not in New Mexico."
The forecast was 75-degrees and sunny.
Clair removed his glasses and rubbed his sore eyes. “I drank too much wine last night and packed 20 minutes ago," he sighed. "I couldn't think straight, so I grabbed everything."
Our driver got back behind the wheel.
"What'd you do?" I asked.
"He said I insulted him," replied Salah.
"He was doing 30, the speed limit, and I overtook him. He said it was just like giving him the finger."
"Of all the goddamn things." Clair shook his head. "You'd think the police have more important things to do in this town. I never pass police cruisers. And that guy was a mean, pip-squeaking sonofabitch. I could tell looking at his eyes."
Clair could look into a person's eyes and determine, in ten seconds, their character—and I.Q.
"What happened was,” Clair snickered, “he looked back here and saw the two most important guys in Washington, so he let you go."
Salah careened to a stop outside the old terminal at Reagan-National Airport and we checked in for TWA's flight to St. Louis.
Sitting in first class seats, Clair and I toasted our client’s renewed feistiness with glasses of pre-flight bubbly.
Her assignment was as straightforward as this MD80's flightpath west: find out what the dickens her daughter was doing, and determine if it impacted negatively on her grandson.
"All she talks to me about is her cat," the countess had complained. "So I know she's up to something.”
We cruised at 31,000 feet, swapping jokes and Sunday newspaper sections.
On the second, shorter leg of the journey, I copped a snooze, waking to see the Texas panhandle, a vast wasteland of brown sand and prairie brush and roads that run in straight lines toward further nothingness.
This expanse of land was even browner on the western side of the Sandia Mountains, over which we skewed for a final descent into Albuquerque.
A terminal in peach and turquoise and angular southwestern patterns welcomed us.
Clair forked off to the baggage carousel and I aimed for Avis, which produced a 1998 Cadillac Seville we immediately dubbed The Whale.
Minutes later, we lurched out of the airport and zoomed north on I-25.
I floored The Whale, pushing 90 uphill.
Next to me, Clair fiddled with hi-tech gadgets and gizmos, adjusting the air-conditioning and the stereo's volume.
His fantasy, since childhood, he confided, was to own a Cadillac, "the ultimate American car," he added.
"So why don't you buy one?" I said.
"Are you kidding? My kids would laugh at me."
So he was content just riding in this one, gaping at the scenery.
"This place looks exactly like India," he said, having been stationed in New Delhi mid-career.
I got lost after exiting the interstate too soon. When you're near most cities, you simply look up—and the skyscrapers draw you in.
Not this town. Even up close, Santa Fe is hidden from view.
"It's near," I said. "You just can't see it."
Clair was astounded—his first sense of what this place was about, especially in the context of our client’s daughter: Hiding out.
I slowed The Whale to ask directions. A man and a woman cursed one another from opposite sides of the road.
"Keep driving," said Clair, "they're having an argument." I suppose he didn't want to be caught in crossfire if it turned ugly.
"So what?" I lowered my window.
"Go to hell you goddamn slut!" the man ranted.
"Which way to the Plaza?" I tossed at him.
"Just follow this road," he said politely while his wife or girlfriend cursed him. Finished with me, he turned on her. "I said shut up, you whore!"
The Old Santa Fe Trail did indeed lead us to the Plaza, the heart of Santa Fe's historical district.
"Here we are," I announced.
"This is it?" Clair looked around, under-whelmed.
"It takes a few days to get used to," I said. "It's very subtle."
Everything was adobe brown and it was sunny, not a cloud in the ultra-blue sky.
"Good thing you brought your raincoat," I added.
I circled the Plaza, past the Palace of Governors, the oldest government building in the United States, its arcade jammed with Native Americans peddling hammered silver, then onward three blocks to the Eldorado, the biggest and best hotel in town.
We dumped The Whale onto a valet, checked into a pair of rooms, and hit the streets.
First stop, a dime store on the Plaza, to purchase straw cowboy hats from Broner of Mississippi, thirty bucks apiece. This was to blend in—more pointedly, not be recognized on the street by Lara.
Although Santa Fe is the capital of New Mexico, it is a small town.
In my blue jeans, I could pull off Santa Fe style.
But Clair, in his silver hair, button-down Brooks Brothers shirt and khaki trousers, looked like a Washingtonian in a cowboy hat.
"I should have brought my fake moustache," he said.
We strolled the circuit in our new hats, doing jewelry shops, art galleries, and La Fonda Hotel for espresso before returning to the Eldorado for downtime.
Down didn't last long. We were up to meet my friend Gideon in the Eldorado's lobby at 6:30; he had scheduled us to meet with Santa Fe insiders.
"Where can we get some good food?" I asked him.
We set off by foot to Garduno’s.
One block in, Gideon pointed to another restaurant. "The Palace has the best food in town. But it's expensive."
Clair and I looked at each other with amused expressions. "Let's eat at the Palace," we both said in unison.
The Palace's interior was New Jersey Italian: a red glow, table dressings overdone, and brothers who ran the joint, one as front-end host, the other, back-end chef.
A young waiter from California suggested we aperitif ourselves with "silver dollars," a fancy margarita with Cointreau and silver-label tequila. We obliged him, clinked glass tumblers and soused our gullets before moving into a bottle of majestic Opus One.
Next morning, I found Clair and we called for The Whale.
Map in hand, we rolled north to Circle Drive, where Lara's house was situated.
"This is supposed to be the ritziest residential street in Santa Fe?" Clair contorted his face, awed by the dirt road.
We donned our cowboy hats for a drive-by.
Most of the houses on Circle Drive were hidden from view, behind landscaping designed to camouflage its residents. A hideout mentality.
The road's elevation ensured spectacular vistas on both sides; miles and miles of desert and mountains that emphasized nature, not people.
"Slow down," barked Clair, watching numbered addresses.
From the look of her enigmatic property, Lara was one of the most hidden. The house dropped into a ravine, shielded by a ten-foot high gate.
"I can't see anything," said Clair.
I drove on. As its name suggests, Circle Drive rounded to a point where we could spy a side view of the adobe structure.
"What's that?" said Clair.
"That." He pointed. "On the roof."
"Solar panels," I replied.
"No. That other thing."
"What other thing?" I squinted for better focus. "Oh, yeah. I see it now. Some kind of flag?"
Running the length of a 12-foot flagstaff, a narrow white flag, fluttering in the breeze. I accelerated in search of another angle from which to view the house.
"Stop!" hollered Clair. "Look, another one!"
This one had been staked into the garden. It was yellow.
A woman in a floppy sun hat strolled nearby. Clair leaned out of The Whale.
"We're looking at those flags," he said. "Do you know anything about them?"
"The owner staked out her whole property line with those things," said the stroller. "We think it's some kind of ceremonial thing."
"Who lives there?" asked Clair.
"Nobody knows her." The stroller shook her head. "She hasn't been around long. We think she's from Texas."
Five minutes later, an epiphany struck Clair as we rolled past the Plaza.
"I know what those things are." He smiled smugly. "They're Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags."
"I don't think our countess is going to like that," said I, savoring my understatement.
"She's a very canny woman," said Clair. "She suspected something like this." He nodded. "Well, I'll be f-----. Buddhist prayer flags."
At 5:30 that afternoon, Clair and I met a Texas-born attorney.
Gideon had told us that this hirsute, straight-talker was too busy to tackle our project, but would recommend the right investigator.
Clair announced that he and I were representing one of the great fortunes of the world.
Mr. T considered Clair’s words. "You know," he said, "I'd like a crack at this myself." He paused. "This kind of thing is not unusual to Santa Fe. We get a lot of rich heiresses running away from home. For some reason, most of them like to come here. There's a lot of good reason for relatives to worry."
"Why's that?" I asked.
"Because we got a lot of cults and religious sects here that pride themselves on identifying and targeting people with money, especially wealthy heiresses who've run away from home."
If Mr. T was looking for the right buttons to push, he'd found a few.
Clair seized on this to describe the strange flags we'd seen fluttering earlier that day.
Mr. T nodded. "Sounds like Buddhist prayer flags. We've got a pretty good size Buddhist community here. I've got some good contacts among the French Buddhists."
French Buddhists. Our client’s daughter had lived in the French region of Switzerland and had been heavily influenced by Madam Goddam, a Buddhist.
Our next meeting was with Mr. C, a local private eye and a descendant of Spanish conquistadores that had settled New Mexico years before the Pilgrims set sail to Plymouth Rock.
I outlined the problem, emphasizing our client’s concern for her grandson.
As we did with Mr. T, we told Mr. C we'd get back to him, though we were already convinced he was the right snoop for us.
Gideon suggested I meet a friend of his named Eliza, whom he described as a "photo-journalist freelancer in limbo between Boomer and Generation X—a wild, party-loving cross between la femme Nikita and Sharon Shone."
Of course, I had to meet her.
"Who's Eliza?" demanded Clair.
"None of your business," I said, tongue-in-cheek.
"I want to see Eliza, too," said Mr. Clair.
"You can't," I said. "Nothing to do with you."
Eliza appeared in the Eldorado's lobby just past four. She'd brought her portfolio along, and for 45 minutes she conducted a show-and-tell about her life in photojournalism, including her adventures in Mexico exposing drug-dealers for The New York Times. Her buoyant character, blue jeans black-and-white cowboy boots... I deluded myself into believing a role existed for her in this soap opera.
At 10:05, Eliza readied herself to leave. "Maybe we could meet again later?" she said. "I could get off at about 9:30?"
Fifteen minutes later, Clair and I set off on foot for Vanessie's, three blocks away, where the former spymaster opted for tequila, which he continued to dispatch without concern for the significantly higher altitude.
Later, we awaited Eliza in the Eldorado's lounge and, when she appeared, Clair introduced himself as Charles Gearhart, and repaired to his room.
"Where's he from, Langley?" asked Eliza.
"That obvious?" I smiled. "So tell me, what makes Santa Fe tick?"
Eliza laughed. "A lot of weird people here."
She had come to Santa Fe from the East Coast and was into her fourth year, barely cutting it with occasional freelance assignments for New Mexico magazine.
"Who are the weirdest?" I asked.
"Hard to say." Eliza considered this. "But diaper-heads are a leading contender."
"Diaper-heads, Q-tips. They're the ones with the whiter than white turbans."
"Ahh." I'd seen them around, a lot of them, wondered what they were about.
"American sikhs," Eliza explained. "They're very wealthy—and big into security."
"No," said Eliza. "Alarm systems. They own biggest security contractor in the area. Anyway, if you want to see what makes Santa Fe tick, you've got to get away from the Eldorado."
"For a start, Evangelo's."
"That bikers bar down the street?" I settled the tab. "Let's do it."
"I'll introduce you to Santa Fe's biggest drug dealer," said Eliza, as we walked. "He hangs out there with his brother. They're both paraplegics."
We passed Eliza's old Toyota Landcruiser, bashed at the front end. "I'm trying to save money to fix that."
Santa Fe's biggest drug dealer and his brother weren't holding court at Evangelo's this night.
It was quiet, winding down. Eliza and I took a couple of stools, ordered drinks.
"The masons," said Eliza.
Eliza nodded. "The Scottish Masonic Temple. Did you see it?"
"Yeah." Clair and I had driven past the old Scottish Masonic Temple while out snooping.
"That's who really runs things," said Eliza.
"In Santa Fe?"
"The world," whispered Eliza. "I'm going to infiltrate them, expose them."
"Good show," I said. "So, we've got diaper-heads and Masons. Who else makes Santa Fe tick?"
"The Buddhists," said Eliza.
"Ah, the Buddhists." I smiled to myself. "What's their story?"
"Corruption, embezzlement. And now they're having a civil war."
"But Buddhists aren't suppose to harm a fly," I said. "How can they have a war?"
"The Thunder God," said Eliza. "Shugden is the Buddhist God that's supposed to protect Tibetan Buddhism from all evils. A couple of years ago, the Dalai Lama banned worship of Shugden because the Buddhist sect that worships Shugden was becoming a fanatical cult.
"In response, Shugden worshipers announced that the Dalai Lama was not the true leader of Buddhism. They've been at odds ever since. There were even a few murders in India."
I phoned Clair at seven a.m. "You coming to the Plaza for breakfast?"
It was his last chance to jumpstart the morning with very hot red and green chilis.
"Nah. I had a rough night."
"I don't know. My dreams had me tossing and turning all night long. I'm exhausted."
"What kind of dreams do that?"
"It was awful," said Clair. "Can you believe, Howard Safir [former chief of the U.S. Marshal Service] on a high wire doing a trapeze act?"
Two hours later we settled our account with the Eldorado. Clair looked pallid and disheveled. I'd seen him on trips put away two scotch and sodas, a bottle of wine and an Armagnac and not resemble anything like this.
I climbed behind the wheel.
"It was the tequila," I said. “It comes from the peyote plant, like mescaline. Hallucinogenic properties."
Clair shook his head. "I was in a king-size bed, but I almost fell out of it a few times."
"Why didn't you get up, drink a glass of water?"
"You kidding? I was riveted. I couldn't break away from seeing what might happen next." He sighed. "I haven't worked so hard in years."
We took a final sweep around Circle Drive, mostly to see if Buddhist flags were still flying.
They were, in different colors.
"Someone's changed them," said Clair. "Different colors mean different things to Buddhists. Serious Buddhists change them daily. It just shows, she's really serious about this."
"What color is Shugden?" I asked.
"The Buddhist God of Thunder."
Clair looked at me through sore eyes. "How'd you suddenly get so damn smart?"
"E-li-za," I sang.
"Oh. What's her story?"
"She thinks the Masons are responsible for everything."
"Main thing," I said, "she's a night-owl, knows the underbelly of this town. And she needs money. Maybe we'll pay her to investigate the local Buddhists."
Clair was still in a daze from his hallucinatory dreams. "Where are we going?"
"Our flight's not till 2:20 so we're going the long way, through Madrid."
"Spain?" Clair scratched his head "After last night I guess anything's possible."
I steered The Whale off I-25 onto Route 14 and wound through scenic desert and hills.
I don't know what I expected, but the reality of Madrid—an old mining town overtaken by hippies in the 1960s—was just a sad jumble of arts and crafts boutiques, junk shops and the Mine Shaft Tavern.