Friday, October 16, 2020

114. LUNCHEON (AND MUCH ELSE) ASKEW




Private Sector Intelligence with Clair George

Early summer 1995

           

The countess requested photographs of the Buddhist flags at Lara’s house.  

I assigned this task to Eliza.  

Posing as a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal, Eliza visited Circle Drive, snapped a roll of film and sent me eight large prints.

Satisfied with Eliza's performance, I commissioned her to research, investigate and draft a report on Tibetan Buddhists in Santa Fe.

Meantime, I searched the whereabouts of Baron von Biggleswurm and connected with him for the first time in four months.  

He was in Germany, had just buried his mother. 

"It was a big hassle," he said of his mother's death.  "We had to suffer.  She loved me very much," he added, before jumping into the really big news:  an impending concert at Biggleswurm Castle.  

The baron had sold another chunk of his family's grounds to pay for the Moscow Philharmonic to travel to Biggleswurm so he could wave his baton at them. 

"The foreign minister of Russia is coming, and the foreign minister of Germany," he babbled, "and also the Queen of Spain."  He paused to take a breath.  "It will be good for my book, yaa?"

 

I traveled to Europe on a family vacation—twelve days in Monaco, six days in London—so I dropped by our client’s villa to present my collection of reports and photographs.

The countess appeared in her courtyard, filled with color and perfume.  

"You've out-done yourself," I said, looking around at the landscaped grounds.  "Your garden is more beautiful than ever."

"You think?"  She smiled, led me into her villa and sat beside me her on the sofa overlooking the garden.  

"So," she said.  "Tell me."

I opened a manila file folder.  

"First, your grandson.  He is a happy, very healthy, well balanced fellow," I read the neatly typed page.  "He is said to be, and I quote, 'A joy to have around.'  No obvious trouble spots."

If this was what the countess wanted to hear, she did not let on.  Indeed, I already suspected it would displease her.  

How could the boy be happy and healthy in Santa Fe, New Mexico, without his grandmother around to direct the program?

I moved on to the next point.  

"This year your grandson has become interested in drama..."

The countess gasped.  "Drama?  Why drama?”

I continued on.  "He is good at drama, one source reports, and makes everyone laugh."

"Ha!"  This was sarcasm.  "He makes everyone laugh?  This is a disaster." 

I prattled on, but the countess was no longer attuned.  

She'd gotten stuck on drama.

Next, I showed the countess photographs of Buddhist prayer flags on her daughter's property.

"Ah, so you see, it's true," she said.

"Santa Fe has become a hub for Tibetan-Buddhist activity," I said.  "It hosts a growing native Tibetan community.  In 1991 there were 12 native Tibetans in Santa Fe.  Today there are over a hundred.  You see here," I presented a copy of Lara’s telephone bill.  "Your daughter is in contact with one of the main organizers."

"Oh my God."

"Let me put this into perspective," I said.  "Free Tibet is one of the most fashionable causes in the United States today.  It attracts national attention through some of Hollywood's biggest movie stars and most popular musical groups."  

The countess wasn't listening, didn't care.  

"Of course," I added, "we want to find out more about the Tibetan Buddhist ringleaders in Santa Fe, see if they are reputable.  And we thought we'd do a financial check to determine if your daughter is giving them money, and if so, how much.  Also, we have indications that your daughter may return to live in Santa Fe after the summer." 

The countess froze in disbelief.  Lara had been telling her mother that she and her son would return to live in Switzerland in September—and the countess was basing her whole existence on this development.  

"But I've given her my apartment in Geneva," she said.  "And everything in it, including the Breugels.”

"According to our sources," I said, "Lara has re-enrolled her son for another year at his private school."

"This is a disaster," said the countess.

At one o'clock sharp, a starched servant announced lunch.  We reconvened on the patio.  

A white-gloved servant appeared with scrumptious pasta followed by grilled dourade, a local fish, garnished with small potatoes, succulent vegetables, and a green salad with avocado and lightly seasoned olive oil. 

In keeping with our client’s custom, we recommenced serious talk over strong coffee, by which time she could percolate from a caffeine infusion.  

"Does my daughter pay tax in America?" she asked, affecting nonchalance.

This was purely rhetorical, for we both already knew that a) her daughter was a U.S. citizen from birth and b) that her daughter declared only a tiny fraction of her unearned income on the federal income tax return she filed.        

"Uh, probably not as much as she's supposed to," I said.

"And why is that?" snapped the countess.

"Because The Gray Fiduciary probably wires her living expenses to the United States and hides the rest."

"Aha!  But she must pay her taxes," said the countess.  "If she chooses to live in America, she must pay her tax, no?"

"Uh, you're not thinking of getting the IRS after her?" I said.

"She thinks she can get away with anything," the countess snarled.  "She must be taught a lesson."

"No, no, no, no, no," I said.  "If you tip off the IRS, you have no control over what happens next.  Because of your daughter's wealthy status, the IRS could decide to make it a criminal investigation.  They do that with high-profile cases to spook everyone else into paying their taxes.  Your daughter could even end up going to jail.  You don't want that."

The countess did not answer immediately.  

"Maybe," she finally said, "my daughter should go to jail."

I could almost hear our client’s brain cells synapsing.  

If her daughter went to jail, custody of her grandson would be up for grabs.  

One thing was certain if that happened:  The boy would not be majoring in drama.

"We must think about this," she said.  "Are you here long?"

"Another week."

"So we can meet again?"

"Of course.  Let me take you out to the restaurant of your choice."

"I prefer here," said the countess.  "It is more private.  We'll have a nice risotto."

 

Five thousand miles away, in the middle of Nowheresville, Wyoming, Lara and her son began a summer vacation at their favorite dude ranch.  

Several hours after their arrival, Eliza, my free-spirited insertion agent arrived at the ranch.  Her assignment was to monitor the situation and, if possible, befriend Lara.

I reached Eliza minutes after she returned home at one o’clock in the morning.

"I got out of the car at the ranch and there she was, right behind me," said Eliza, "asking if I needed any help with my bags."

"And you became friends?"

"Absolutely.  She's a wonderful, beautiful person, and so is her son.  You can tell her mother she should be very proud of them."

Yeah, right.  Eliza did not know the countess.  

"You must be tired," I said.  We agreed to speak 12 hours hence, after Eliza had a chance to sleep and organize her notes. 

“Uh…” said Eliza.

"Yes?"

"I really like her."  She paused.  "Is that a problem?"  

Clearly, Eliza was struggling with her duplicity.

"Not at all," I said.  "It's great that you genuinely like her.  Remember, we only want the best for Lara and her son."  

I meant this. Because in my mind, the original mission had never changed (the contessa's plot twist notwithstanding): to ensure that my client's daughter and grandson were protected from their nutcase ex-husband/father.  

"Did you get a sense that she has many friends?" I enquired.

"I get a sense that she doesn't."

"Do you think that if you cultivate this relationship you could become her new best friend?"

"I already am."

It was almost spooky how quickly the normally aloof Lara had taken to Eliza.  

I had mixed my chemicals well.  The formula behind this chemistry was simple:  

Eliza was everything Lara wished to be—adventurous, high-spirited, an extrovert.  And the diffident, lonely, introverted Lara was everything Eliza wished to be: incredibly rich.


My eight pages from debriefing Eliza was the crux of my second lunch with the countess.  

We sat, once again, facing her garden. 

"We have made amazing progress," I said.

"Tell me."  The countess rubbed her hands in anticipation.

"Not only did our operative monitor your daughter and grandson, she has become their close friend.  She had long talks with Lara during shopping expeditions into town.  I'm going to read directly from my notes on what the operative told me."

"Please."

"Lara is very private, but very conversational..."

"She talks to new people," she sniffed, "but won't talk to her mother."

"Lara said that Santa Fe is 'never dull.'"

"What about the winter?"

"Lara complains that she's had a hard time with servants.  She says drivers are worse in Santa Fe than in Iran.  Next day, they went into town to shop..."

"She has time to shop, but no time to call me," said the countess.  "Egotist!"

"Lara likes western shops and bright colors.  She bought hot pink jeans.  Her son bought a fleece jacket."

"Clothes for the closet," snapped the countess.

"Lara needed to have a crown recapped so she visited a local dentist."

"What a place to fix teeth!" the countess wailed.

"Lara told our operative that her son has a difficult relationship with his father..."

"It's a lie!"  The countess detonated.  "He has a wonderful relationship with his father.  How dare she talk against him to a stranger!"

Remember, this was the same lunatic baron who's relationship with his son she had hired us  to disrupt.

"Lara said that after visits with his father, her son climbs into bed with her."

"You see what she does?"  The countess frowned.  "He is not a man."

"Lara reads everything," I continued.

"But she doesn't even read the newspapers.”

"These are my operative's observations," I said.  "Lara has an inquisitive mind, she likes to learn and explore new things..."

"The wrong things."

"She's astute at sizing things up."

"Ha!"

"Lara told my operative, and I quote, 'Money is not a substitute for family fulfillment.'"

The countess jumped up.  "Say that again, I’ll write it down."  She whipped around the large room like a tornado, found a pen and notepad, and whirled back.

"Money is not a substitute for family fulfillment," I repeated.

The countess put ink to paper.  "I see.  So why doesn't she give her money to the poor and go to work?"

In the interest of diplomacy, I skipped a passage on what Lara had told Eliza about her parents:  

She loved her father but her mother was "very programmed" and "not a good role model" and "superficial."  She told Eliza that her mother was jealous of her husband's love for their daughter and so had contrived to stick her daughter with a governess while she and the count hobnobbed around Europe with aristocratic jet-setters.  

"Our operative reports that your daughter has a good sense of humor," I said.

"She has no sense of humor," the countess spat.  "She never had a sense of humor."

"She likes Monty Python," I added.

"That is not humor," said the Countess. "It is... different."

 "Now your grandson," I said, scouring my notes.

 "Yes.  Tell me."

 "He's an expert on movies."

"I must shoot my daughter!" she hissed, teary-eyed.  "She is ruining the count's heir!"

"A very polite, well-spoken boy," I read from my notes.  "He wanted to try chewing tobacco.  Lara let him, teach him a lesson.  He turned green and ran off to be sick."

"This is a mother?"

"Toward the end of our operative's stay," I said, "some people from Connecticut arrived at the ranch.  Your daughter told made our operative that they might be 'spies disguised as a family.'  They laughed about it, but Lara said, 'I've had worse—they’re always watching me.'"

This astounded the countess. "My daughter thinks I'm spying on her?  How can she think such a thing about me?  Does she think her life is so interesting?"

There was no way to answer this. 

"Our operative is given to understand that Lara and her son will remain in Santa Fe beyond August.”

We moved to the open-air terrace for lunch.  

Our first course made me gag:  cold soft-boiled eggs in jelly.

Clearly, much was askew.

"My late husband, may he rest in peace, told me he married me because I'm so sincere," the countess finally spoke.  "Can you believe I gave birth to such a thing?"

I did not reply, but jiggled soft-boiled egg in jelly with my fork.

"I will change everything," the countess hissed.  "She will wait and wait and wait."  The countess paused.  "She should spend time in jail.  Have you thought about this?”

I wanted no part putting the IRS onto Lara.  "I don't think..." I began.

"The maestro," she said.  "We must know what the maestro thinks.  He will know the answer.  Will he come?"

"Where's your phone?"

I phoned Clair George, returned to the table.  "He's making travel arrangements."

The countess smiled for the first time since the briefing began.  "Ah, this is good news."  

 

Two days later, Clair left a phone message saying he would not be coming.  

I found him seven hours later and he sounded awful.  

"This is very embarrassing," he said.  "I was bitten by my cat.  I've got an infection or an allergic reaction or something.  I can't walk.  I haven't slept all night.  I'm on antibiotics."

"What should I tell the countess?"

"Tell her I've had a family emergency.  I’ve got to go, I feel awful.  Call me later."

First the countess was disappointed.  Then she turned cold and abrupt—and after that, dismissive.  

"I think we should close the curtains on this play,” she said.  “Finito bon soir."

"The maestro can visit next week," I said.

"Next week I have visitors."

"The week after?"

"Thank you, goodbye."

I phoned Clair to fill him in.  He sounded unwell.  

“Anything else?" he asked.

"Yeah. She wants to unleash the IRS on Lara.”

"Why?"

"She thinks it would be good for Lara’s character to spend time in prison.  And it would free up the boy to be in father’s custody."

"She wants that?"

"She wants anything that will punish her daughter."

"This really has taken a strange turn," said Clair.

 "Sure has."

 "The IRS you say?"

 "Yep."

 "Her own daughter?"

 "Uh-huh."

 "Well, f--- her."

 "My sentiments precisely."


This story should have ended there.  

I wanted it to end there.

But, breaking through his fever, Clair phoned the countess to explain his cat bite.           

"Well, thank God you're sick," she told him.  "I thought you found something else to do."


And then she renewed our theatrical production/situation comedy/soap opera for another season.