Private Sector Intelligence with Clair George
Clair telephoned the countess in St. Moritz to wish her a Happy New Year.
"You must come see me," she said. "It is time for another war council."
Our driver arrived at my home in a super-stretch limousine because Bruce Willis was his next ride and he had no time to change vehicles.
We cruised to Clair’s house.
His neighborhood had been without power for 36 hours after a freak ice storm cut electrical lines.
His cold neighbors, milling outside on the dark street to exchange updates, watched with curiosity as the super-stretch limo drew up to Clair’s modest house.
Magic Bag in hand, raincoat clad, Clair waved at his neighbors. "I'm off to the French Riviera. See ya!"
The search for an appropriate birthday gift for our countess led us to the bookstand inside Dulles airport.
I picked up a copy of The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Llama.
"How about this?"
Clair smirked, flashed a book of his own.
Eat the Rich by P.J. O'Rourke.
We purchased neither, passed on The Blood Countess by Andrei Codrescu and minutes later boarded Virgin Atlantic, Upper Class, to London.
At Heathrow we talked our way into Club Class of British Airways' Riviera Route and landed in Nice before noon.
A taxi dumped us at the Monte Carlo Grand.
We met our countess at the understated though quite elegant Hotel Metropole in Beaulieu-Our-Mer at noon precisely.
Her hair was no longer gray, but dark brown; her voice, an octave higher than before.
She was overjoyed to see Clair.
Truth be known, she would have hired him as an escort, if not all-out live-in companion, were he unmarried and so inclined.
We found a nook and sat.
Obsequious waiters scurried for mineral water, olives and crispy twists.
The countess talked mostly gossip.
The only indication that a work-related matter existed was an aside that her Swiss Banker (not the Gray Fiduciary) would arrive imminently, and our presence was required next morning for a powwow.
At one o’clock we embarked on a full-scale lunch in the Metropole's formal dining room: ravioli stuffed with courgettes and lima beans, grilled turbot, and chocolate soufflé for dessert.
Next morning we taxied back to Beaulieu.
The Swiss Banker was overjoyed to see us.
I could guess why:
In our absence—six months—it was the banker who had borne the brunt of his client's compulsive meddling into her daughter's affairs.
His eyes conveyed weariness. We were, he had obviously determined, well worth her expense.
Also, we had never protested when abandoned. We’d simply shrugged and said, Okay, the show's been cancelled, see ya-bye.
The countess commenced:
"My late husband, the count was adamant that our money is European money, not American money."
The problem: Lara continued to speak as if she were American and talked about returning to Santa Fe after her son completed high school and attend college in the USA.
The countess acted it out as only she could, alternating sternness and sorrow, angst and misty eyes, and, ultimately, optimism for the future.
The countess demanded total focus, hence, three hours spent in her company was a draining experience.
In the course of our discussion, we determined that the Gray Fiduciary, now in Lara’s camp, would be happy to go along with whatever Lara instructed him to do, including the shielding of her fortune from the taxman’s view and cutting himself a large slice as his fair share.
It became apparent that lines had been drawn, trenches dug.
On one side, the countess, her Swiss Banker, the spymaster and me.
On the other, Lara, the Gray Fiduciary and another character who had been around the family for decades, chipping away at the fortune.
At stake: Inheritance.
In the middle: Lara’s son, who seemed not to have a clue about what was going on.
The wild card: Baron von Biggleswurm, who was this month vacationing in the Caribbean and conjuring up “new problems with the boy" to keep his ex-mother-in-law’s cash flowing in his direction.
The countess desired to alienate Lara from the United States, to stop her incessant referral to it as "my country"—in addition to keeping her (and her grandson) in Europe.
During lunch, the countess looked at me with a sly smile.
"This would make an interesting book, no?" she asked.
"No one would ever believe it," I replied.
Then I had to fly off to Limoges and meet Ira Einhorn, leave her in Clair's charge to strategize our next episode:
I telephoned Baron von Biggleswurm. It had been months since we’d spoken.
"Ah, I was in America, in New York, I tried to phone you, I couldn't find your telephone number," blurted Biggleswurm in one breath. "And Barbuda, in the Caribbean, an island, next to Antigua..." He was trying to stave off any mention of the book he still hadn't written. "Big bungalows on the beach, people from Europe who serve—apart from some black people." Then he changed the subject to Davos, Switzerland—the annual economic forum, in which he claimed a role.
Davos caused him apoplexy.
"Lost for words?" I interjected. "I can't believe that, baron."
"A mish-mash of intellectual nihilistic rubbish!" he exploded.
"That's more like it," I said.
"But, but you have to... create," Biggleswurm yelped. "Everything has to be destroyed before vision can come!"
"Everything okay with the family?"
"Ah, my son, he was here. There's still trouble. The mother is cracked."
"And how is her mother, the hedgehog?" I asked.
The baron laughed. "She is the hedgehog, sugar granny and dragon all in one. She calls me all the time. She loves me, not her daughter. And now she pays my bills."
Not long after, I joined Clair in the backseat of Salah's Towncar and we set off on another trans-Atlantic trek to conspire with our countess.
We laughed our way through check-in and security and into a pair of Virgin Upper Class recliners. I dropped a Xanax and snoozed across the Atlantic. (Clair had introduced me to this prescription tranquilizer that helped with jet lag.)
A connection at Heathrow dumped us onto the French Riviera before noon; a taxi careened us through the mountains and spilled us into Monaco and Hotel de Paris.
"Last time we stayed here,” I said to the registration clerk, “you gave us a two bedroom suite. Any chance of that happening again?"
The clerk regarded me with amusement.
"Our two-bedroom suites start at 12,000 francs a night." He tapped his keyboard, perhaps to see if I was fibbing about our last stay. "Ah, yes—here it is. It was a very good deal."
Clair turned to me. "How did we get that suite anyway?"
"This hotel was very kind to us," I replied in earnest.
The clerk smiled. "If you are prepared to pay 3,000 francs each, I could switch you to the American Express Platinum program and give you a two bedroom suite."
"Sea view?" said I.
"Partial." The clerk chuckled. "I think you'll like it."
The clerk accompanied us to the third floor.
Rooms 327-29 turned out to be the suite I'd always dreamt about as I gazed up at the famed hotel from Cafe de Paris across Place du Casino.
It was the most sumptuous suite I had ever laid eyes on. The spacious living room, and both bedrooms, opened onto balconies that hung over the hub of Monte Carlo, with astounding views of mountains and sea.
Clair scrambled for a $20 bill to tip our clerk. (Later, when the magnitude of his kindness sank in, we pushed a C-note his way.)
This was the kind of accommodation one doesn't wish to leave.
But, alas, we were in town at our client’s convenience—and when Clair telephoned her, it was convenient for her that we manifest ourselves in her presence that very afternoon.
I copped a snooze on the sofa, awakened with a view of Cap Martin and showered with Hermes bathing potions.
"There must be a catch," I said to Clair as we descended to the lobby. "This is too good, even by our standards."
Our client’s villa looked more beautiful than ever before, a contender for paradise on earth. She and the Swiss Banker greeted us.
We sat around a table on the patio and discussed the latest development:
Two weeks earlier, the countess had spent time with her grandson in St. Moritz as part of the ongoing arrangement with her ex-son-in-law, Baron Biggleswurm, to share visitation rights.
She told us of a "heart-to-heart" she'd had with the boy, recently turned 16, and how the baron had apparently convinced his son to move to England come summer for enrollment into a strict British boarding school.
To that end, with the baron's coaching (and our client’s conniving), the boy penned a letter to his mother notifying her of his desire to re-locate—a letter he would supposedly hand-deliver to mom.
But what happened was this:
One day after arriving home, the boy phoned his father, cursed him, said he had no intention of moving to Britain—and hung up.
Whether or not the boy actually delivered the letter to his mother was unknown and possibly irrelevant, though it would probably only serve to remind mom why she had run away from this crowd in the first place.
Either way, this countess-inspired tactic was grossly imprudent and could only serve to enflame an already impossible situation—and ignite Lara into explosive action.
Which was probably our client’s true motive: stick it to her ungrateful daughter and cause a reaction.
Clair and I listened, disbelieving our ears.
Next morning, Clair tapped my door, behind which I recuperated from a jet-lag, Cotes du Rhone and Xanax combo.
"Breakfast is served," he announced.
"I didn't order any breakfast," I rasped.
"Neither did I—but they brought some anyway."
I peeked into the living room and observed a gleaming silver-plated trolley laden with steaming hot coffee, warm milk, grapefruit juice, scrambled egg and bacon. Set for two.
I shook my head. "We're definitely being set up for something."
Clair didn't care. He was, delightedly, already filling his face.
At twelve-noon, Clair departed for our client’s villa, leaving me in Monte Carlo for lunch with Prince Albert of Monaco.
This had been arranged hastily after I'd sent the Prince a wise-assed fax trumpeting my imminent arrival in his principality and wondering if he would be available for a casual drink.
A lunch invitation from the Palace had rebounded on my fax machine.
I appeared at L'Hirondelle overlooking the port at the appointed hour, one p.m.
Prince Albert arrived 15 minutes later and apologized for his tardiness.
"You kidding?" I said. "I've seen you try to leave a room. Eight people want three-and-a-half minutes each."
Prince Albert laughed.
"And ever since the Palace called my hotel this morning to change the venue of this lunch from the Auto Club," I added, "the staff have been bowing as I walk by. Do you have any idea what kind of trail you leave?"
Prince Albert shook his head. "Really?"
At Albert's suggestion, we started with a vitamin drink.
"What are you doing in Monaco?" he asked.
"The usual," I replied. "Pop in, stir up shit and get out of town before it hits the fan."
I filled Albert in on my role as a problem solver and on the meaning of L.Q. (Laugh Quotient) as criteria for taking assignments.
We talked about Monaco, about mutual friends, but mostly we laughed.
The countess, the Swiss Banker and Clair looked up at me expectantly when I strolled into her living room.
"And Prince Albert?" asked the countess.
"A very sweet fellow."
"Did you hear some gossip?" she asked, eyes a-twinkle.
I shook my head. "No gossip. So what have you all decided?"
"We have a plan." The countess rubbed her hands in glee.
She lived for these sessions.
I opened my leather portfolio and poised a pen over paper.
"Number one," said Clair. "A background check of Mister Diep."
A key Buddhist in Santa Fe.
I noted this.
"Number two. We're going to confirm if Lara has accounts at banks in Bermuda and Grand Cayman. And if so, see what money transfers have taken place."
"Three. Baron von Biggleswurm. We've got to get him to do something."
I closed my leather folio, put down my pen and glared at Clair.
"What did I say?" he protested.
"You've gone too far. That baron never does anything."
The countess did not laugh, as she might have several years earlier when Biggleswurm was a troublesome clown and our sole target on her behalf.
I was not delivering the lines as scripted.
And I didn't care.
"We have to try," said Clair. "Only he, as the boy's father, has the authority to take action."
"What action?" I asked.
"To prove the mother is incompetent. And demand custody of the boy."
"For giving money to Buddhists?"
Clair gave me a look that said, would you please shut up? "Only the father can take a stance," he repeated.
On the ride back to Monaco, Clair recounted how the countess had excused herself after lunch to "make phone calls" and left him and the Swiss Banker to chat for an hour.
The banker had allowed how stupid it was to send the boy home with a letter for his mother.
When Clair had excused himself to use the toilet, he glimpsed the countess in her den, riveted to a television soap opera she could not bear to miss.
"That's what this is," I said. "A big living, breathing soap opera, produced and directed by the countess for her own entertainment. We're just actors. She pays us to perform our roles—the Swiss banker and Biggleswurm, too. And she buys all the props."
Clair shrugged. "It gives her something to live for."
In the Grill Room atop Hotel de Paris, Clair and I treated ourselves to a bottle of 1990 Bandol rouge.
As a first course I ordered asperge and, lo and behold, a liveried waiter set before me the same proctology instrument that the countess had left unused (and which had scared me witless) at L'Amypyron in Geneva years before.
It was like tongs, but had three loops, two on one side and one on the other. On this occasion, without royalty present, I intended to master its use.
“Do you have any idea how this dang thing works?"
Clair sipped his Bandol, sighed and nodded. "You put an asparagus stem through each loop, grip it by its tongs and shove three spears into your mouth."
Fortunately, a waiter stopped me in time and demonstrated how to use a pance l'asperges:
Index and middle finger through the two loops on one side, thumb through the third; grip the stems, dip in Hollandaise sauce, deliver to mouth.
Next: grilled sea bass grilled with olive oil and herbs.
Dessert: Chocolate soufflé. A rich concoction conceived in heaven.
A sommelier sidled up and introduced a trolley of top shelf after-dinner hooch to round out the experience.
Clair was thinking Armagnac.
The steward recommended a 1942 vintage.
"Price?" said Clair
"Four hundred francs." About $70.
Clair considered moving into the 1950s or 1960s to reduce our investment.
"No," I said. "Go for it."
And so we passed a snifter of 1942 Armagnac back and forth between us, savoring its aroma, absorbing its glow.
I was up and out early next morning; no sign of Clair, until he appeared just before eleven o’clock.
He looked beat up.
"I dreamt I was attacked by a giant chocolate soufflé." Clair shook his head and shuddered. "It was everywhere, a river of chocolate. I was drowning in soufflé."
I could see in my mind’s eye the newspaper headline:
Former CIA Spymaster Assassinated By Monster Chocolate Soufflé.
Clair skipped breakfast.
Just thinking about the upcoming farewell lunch at our client’s villa induced him into a cold sweat.
The countess bristled with anxiety when we arrived.
She had just spoken with barmy Biggleswurm, who had filled her head with new worry.
It was no doubt the baron's strategy to keep the hedgehog, as he called her, wound up, even if he had to make up stories to keep her attentive and anguished.
And so the countess acted out some imagined new drama; an all is lost routine we'd seen before.
When she realized this storyline was stale, she tossed in a new zinger to liven things up.
"I will give you each a half-million dollars if you are successful!" she cried.
"C'mon, countess," said Clair. "We're your friends, you don't have to give us a million dollars." He paused. "Make it fifty million."
The countess wiped imaginary tears and chuckled at the joke.
"I'm serious. I will give you both a million dollars so you can travel the world and think of me."
Clair shook his head. "Here's the deal," he said. "If we succeed, we want your chef."
The countess giggled.
We commiserated with the countess and guided her to emotional uplift.
Yes, she would continue to fight the good fight. She would do this for her late husband, the count and for her only grandchild.
We were not egging her on, but simply performing our roles and bringing this episode to a satisfying conclusion.
Luncheon was announced.
We took our places in the dining room.
A liveried servant treated us to saffron pasta in pastry, Dover sole, salad and homemade sorbet in an edible cookie dish.
I phoned Baron von Biggleswurm the moment we arrived at Lowndes Hotel, around the corner from the Baron's new digs in Belgravia.
He insisted we come to his home. "I expect you at ten o'clock this evening.”
Biggleswurm answered the door himself, looking daffier than ever in a yellow plaid waistcoat over a green shirt and red patterned tie.
He gave me a hug, shook Clair’s hand and guided us through several floors of his new abode. The rooms were elegantly furnished.
This was, perhaps, our client’s most expensive prop yet; bestowed upon the baron to anchor him respectably in London and win the affection and respect, if not full-time custody, of his son.
The baron's wife appeared, a slender waif whose unfortunate fate it was to endure a self-absorbed, demanding husband.
Biggleswurm dispatched her to find a bottle of wine.
To her credit, she returned with a reasonably decent Charles Latour Cote de Beaune.
Clair focused on Biggleswurm, I on his wife.
Talk turned to the baron's son.
Biggleswurm’s wife had already broken the code: her stepson wrote the letter under duress; a bargain cut with his father for permission to leave one day early.
Her explanation cut to the heart of the matter. This boy was supposed to choose between:
a) Leave all his friends, move to Britain and board at a very strict all-boys school or...
b) Stay where he is, at home with his mother and attend a liberal, American-style high school.
Tough choice for a 16 year-old.
Clair looked at me hard. "I thought I asked you to help the baron with this custody problem?"
I shrugged, feigning embarrassment. "I've done what I could."
"Obviously it wasn't enough." Clair acted annoyed, as we had scripted earlier. "We have to do something to help him."
"Like what?" I said.
Clair turned to Biggleswurm. "You say your wife is crazy, that she's into cults? What if we get to the bottom of that, and you can use our findings against her."
"You would do this for me?" said Biggleswurm.
Clair pointed at me. "He will."
I returned my attention to the baron’s wife. "Have your parents come to visit?"
"No." She stole a nervous glance at Biggleswurm. "There are personal problems between them and my husband."
The baron’s ear perked.
"We've cut off family,” he clarified, then rose to find his cello.
Biggleswurm snorted several times and tortured its strings with a bow while Clair and I desperately strategized an exit ramp.