Wednesday, October 28, 2020

126. THE DOUBLE-BLIND



Virgn Upper Class: Manicure


Private-Sector Intelligence with Clair George

1999


Clair reached into his spy-net and produced Hugh Hotchkiss, a specialist in banking and financial investigations.  

Hugh did his magic and met us at the Hilton Hotel in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia with results.

"What have you gotten me into this time?" asked Hotchkiss, clearly shaken.

"What do you mean?" said Clair.

"Is this some big-time mafia boss we're investigating?" Hotchkiss whispered.

"Of course not," Clair guffawed and looked at me.  "Tell Hugh the story."

And quite a story it was.  I gave him a thumbnail sketch of our contessa's soap opera.

Hotchkiss relaxed.  "I've never experienced this much difficulty with a Swiss bank," he said.  "The way my agents were acting, I was sure we were dealing with a dangerous Russian mob boss."

Hotchkiss then presented his findings.

 

The 30-year-old jumbo shuddered and creaked as it launched into the Washington night.  

Reclining aboard Virgin's Upper Class:  

The spymaster and me.

We’d decided the only way to convey our Hotchkiss findings to the countess was mug-to-mug, preferably in a quiet corner of a luxury hotel on the French Riviera. 

It would be a quick trip, only three-nights in Europe—92 hours from departure to rebound.    

I caught another kip on the connection to Nice so I was in fine form when we checked into La Reserve de Beaulieu.  

The Swiss Banker had made reservations for us in this serene, elegant setting by the sea.

Just past five o’clock, the countess and her banker appeared in the hotel parlor.  She looked frailer than before.  An enlarged spleen and medication to shrink it had drained feistiness from her soul, meat from her bones, color from her cheeks.

"I think we’ll retire from this business," said the countess as she seated herself.  "I can't go on."

I didn't care.  The money had been good, the ride even better. But this soap opera begged cancellation and what better venue for a concluding episode than La Reserve in Beaulieu?

I arranged my notes and spoke:  

"Lara has two accounts at UBS in Geneva.  Both are password-numbered and managed by the Gray Fiduciary.  The first account is in U.S. dollars."  I recited the dual-coded account number.  "This is the one of interest."

The Swiss Banker was mortified that we were able to provide such information  

"I close my account at UBS tomorrow," he muttered.

"Don't bother," I said, looking him straight in the eye.  "Our man can do this with every Swiss bank.  Now, the interesting thing about this account is that it shows a debit of $7,361.  However, as we delve further into the file and cut through smoke and mirrors, we find a notation that $460,000 is, and I quote, 'assigned to this account.’  This, we're told, is known as The Double Blind."

The Swiss Banker looked at me, an almost-indiscernible twitch in his right eye.  

"We all do this," he said quietly.

"The account," I continued, "was used to transfer substantial funds to an account owned by [name deleted] of Grand Cayman into the Cayman National Bank.  The money went to a Dump Account, comprised of funds belonging to a number of clients.  Because these funds are commingled, only [deleted] knows who owns what in the money pool."  I paused.  "The purpose of this technique is to launder money."

The countess turned to her banker.  "But why does my daughter wash her money?" 

"To avoid the tax," he replied.  He shrugged, like, doesn't everyone?

I continued:  "Based on the very significant steps taken to Double Blind the funds and transfer them into a Dump Account in the Caymans, our investigator believed he was tracking a big-time criminal, not a wealthy heiress.  Moreover, our source found reason to believe that money is being channeled to third parties through the Dump Account.

Our client’s antenna shot up.  "But to who?"

"Our source thinks he can penetrate the Dump Account and find out," Clair finally piped up.  "We think we can go Beyond the Dump."

This intrigued the Swiss Banker, who was amazed we'd obtained as much as we had.

Meeting adjourned, Clair and I ordered cocktails.

"Did you see the look on that banker's face when I recited Lara’s bank account details?" I said.

"We terrify him," said Clair.

We had already learned, in dealings with other clients, that, indeed, we frightened people.

This is because our clients came to discover that, with the right amount of money, there was nothing we couldn't find out about anyone.

"So far," I said, "we've got The Double Blind and Beyond the Dump.  What's next, The Triple Monkey?"

           

The following morning began with another session of countess and her banker, mostly a rehash.

At noon, Clair announced that he and I had to depart.  

This came as a shock to the countess.   

Already ornery, she chose this moment to vent her swollen spleen.  It was expensive to bring us to Europe, she whined, so why must we hurry off?  

She rose to feed her Yorkshire terrier, muttering that other sleuths were needed to do her bidding.

I let her stomp off.  Clair accepted her outburst with a shrug.  

But the banker intervened.  "There is enough time," he said to her.  "We can finish our business."

"So no lunch,” the countess grumbled.   “We have sandwiches here and continue our business."

But our business was done and we were down to gossip.  The countess had not heard from her daughter in months, not even when her health seemed grave.

I walked the countess through the parlor to La Reserve's lobby.  It was difficult for her to muster the emotional uplift she would normally exude at this juncture; her malfunctioning spleen was in control.  

Instead, she wept a tear for her grandson.  

"I've tried so hard," she croaked.

"One day," I said, "he will know the truth about what you've done."

 

Despite her tantrum over the shortness of our visit, the countess saw us off in time to catch an earlier connection to London than planned.


An Immigration Inspector at Heathrow Airport asked Clair what he'd be doing in London.

"Absolutely nothing," replied Clair.

Said the inspector:  "That's the first honest answer I've heard in years.”


Top priority (for me) in London was a scavenger hunt: 

Cuban cigars, Hill's absinthe and avocado shaving cream. 

Although Clair threatened to turn me in for smuggling Cuban cigars into the USA he came to my aid when a Customs inspector eyed my bag, which was filled with contraband.  


"Who won the Mets-Braves game last night?" Clair interjected.

The inspector did a blank.  "Was there a game last night?"

Clair shrugged.  "Maybe not.  I'm probably confused by jet-lag."

I was already out the door.

 

Six weeks passed.  

Our man Hotchkiss had not gotten Beyond the Dump and I was headed for a scolding.  

If that happened, it was my intention to end it all there and then.

I was buoyant from other sub rosa adventures when I arrived at our client’s villa, poinsetta in hand.

"It's beautiful!" the countess squealed in delight.  "Something to drink?"

A new bond was forged upon discovering we both enjoyed Fernet-Branca, an herbal digestif most people find bitter and medicinal.

The countess had dined two weeks earlier with her grandson and a genuine relationship had blossomed between the two.

Lara, in contrast, remained estranged from her mother, from the world.  But she was an oddball, simple as that; would only grow odder with age.

Main thing:  Little more was left for the spymaster and me to do.  

That was how I pre-empted a scolding.  

"It's ridiculous that you should keep us on," I told the countess.

"But... but..."

"You have a fine relationship with your grandson," I said.  "You're on good terms with the boy's father."  I paused.  "Lara needs a therapist, but this is something she has to recognize herself."

"But... but what if she moves back to New Mexico?"

"So what if she does?" I said.  "She doesn't talk to you when she's here in Europe."

"But my grandson?"

"He'll decide for himself where he wants to attend college.  The trend, generally, is that kids flee their parents, go as far away as possible."  I paused.  "As for our tasks:  We can't go on waiting forever to get Beyond the Dump.  What else could you possibly want us to do?"

The countess said she wanted us to use the IRS to instill such fear in her daughter that she would never want to step foot in the USA again.

"Once you tip off the IRS, you have no control over what they do," I reminded her.  

But I agreed to consult the maestro and come up with something.


As we boarded Delta's nonstop flight to Nice at JFK, Clair and I agreed to call our client’s bluff:  we'd eat and drink and rubbish our livers with rich sauce and vintage Armagnac until she folded and ordered us out.  

It would be more than a production meeting.  

With the Reserve's restaurant now meriting two Michelin stars, this would be a pig fest.

One week earlier, a Complaint lodged at Washington DC Superior Court—stemming from our investigative exploits on behalf of The Circus years earlier—had characterized Clair as "a convicted felon" and me as "a spy and saboteur."   

This depiction of Clair was factually incorrect as he had been pardoned for his role in Iran-Contra by President Bush before sentencing.

As for myself, no way around it, that's what I did and I did it very well. As a willing participant, I hugely enjoyed the spy world and my close friendship with Clair George. Maybe I wish I'd focused more on my writing than espionage but, let's face it, my adventures provided grist for novelistic story-telling.

We chortled about these sobriquets as our cabbie negotiated morning traffic along the Basse Corniche.  

I threw the odd glance over my shoulder to see if an investigative team from ABC's 20/20 was in pursuit.  

(They had called looking for me.)

La Reserve processed us into a pair of sea-view rooms and we met the countess for tea and biscuits.

She actually requested we approach her situation as if it were a movie.  

At 7:30, the countess and her banker joined us for cocktails in the bar.  

A quartet of servants escorted us into the dining room and a mortician-like sommelier proffered a wine list.  

We decided on 1990 Bandol rouge.

From there it was all uphill:  

Fresh asparagus and sardines served in a rich sauce only a Frenchman could conceive.  

For a main course, sea bass.  

The tasting was so sensational, my brain borrowed from my sense of hearing.  Every so often I caught a phrase or two about the terrible predicament in which our countess found herself:  her daughter, with whom she had not spoken for a year, was intent on returning to New Mexico and installing her son at college in the United States.  

We—said the countess—must not allow this to happen.  Such a move, she reiterated, would bode badly for the sole heir to her immense fortune.

"This is our last chance," trilled the countess.  

If it didn't pan out her way, she said, she'd leave all her money to charity.  

Her way was this:  the boy should go to university in Europe.  The boy's mother could go to hell, as the countess had written her off—for the fifth time—as nuts.  But the boy must remain in Europe.

Just when I started to pay attention, the chocolate soufflĂ© arrived.  And that was the end of that.  In any case, I'd heard it all before.  We were into repeats. 


The Swiss Banker arrived punctually at eleven next morning for our first formal session.  

I presented him with the results of our financial investigation.  

But we needed people news i.e. gossip, not money news, to hold our client’s interest.  And even the banker now appreciated that this is what it was truly all about:  keeping the countess entertained in her old age.

Although she had planned to miss this first session, the countess could not help herself.  She popped by, just to say hello.  But after plopping down, she never got up.  Her tiny terrier, expecting a walk, glared with indignation.

The chipper countess proposed that we title our new episode Operation Rescue.  Then she called on Clair to present all the options.

"Number One," Clair commenced.  "We can get your daughter thrown out of the United States.  It's drastic, and probably not what you want, but..."

"Who says I do not want?" the countess interrupted.  "We see. What next?"

"Number Two," said Clair.  "We can make your daughter believe she's under investigation by the IRS."

"How does this work?" asked the Countess, intrigued.

 Clair turned Number Two over to me.

"I know someone retired from the IRS," I said.  "He was one of their top investigators.  He knows exactly how the IRS goes about investigating someone they suspect of income tax evasion.  We hire this guy to go through the motions of an investigation, the same way the IRS would do it.  We have him do this overtly, so that your daughter learns about it.  He doesn't actually tell anyone that he works for the IRS, because impersonating a federal officer is illegal.  But he knows all the right things to say, so he leads them to draw their own conclusions.  Once your daughter believes the IRS is after her, she'll leave the States forever because a) she hates to be hassled, and b) she knows she's guilty of tax evasion and they put people in prison for that."

"But if her lawyers call the IRS?" asked the countess.

"That's the dumbest thing anyone can ever do," I said.  "If someone called up the IRS and asked, 'Are you investigating me?' the first thing the IRS would ask themselves is, Should we be?  But even if your daughter and her lawyers are naive enough to do that," I added, "the IRS, a cumbersome bureaucracy, won’t answer.  They'll say, 'We'll look into it' or 'We're not allowed to talk about ongoing investigations.'"  

The countess liked this idea.  So did her banker.  It was less extreme than Number One.

"Number Three," said Clair.  "Baron von Biggleswurm.  He's a flake—we all know that—but he's the only person who has any legal rights over the boy." Clair pointed to me.  "He talks to him all the time."

"He's a do-nothing," growled the countess.  "I spoke to him yesterday.  He listens, he says yes, then he does nothing."

"I made an appointment for him to see lawyer two weeks ago," said the banker.  "We wait.  He does not come."

"Biggleswurm is still an influence in the boy's life," said Clair.  "We all have to work on him, from different directions, to influence the boy and exert his rights as father.”

"Number Four," said Clair, winging it, as usual, but speaking with such gravity that it seemed like weeks of thought had gone into this numeric sequence.  "The Buddhists."

Nobody could raise any enthusiasm about the Buddhists.  Number Four died on the vine. 

"Bravo."  The countess stood.  She decreed that we would meet in her suite—for maximum privacy—to review our options and devise a strategy.

"I have Number Five," the banker said to Clair and me, after the countess departed.

"Five?" said Clair.  He looked at me, I looked at him, we both looked at the Banker.  “What is Number Five?”

"Number Five," said the banker.  "Beat, talk, leave."

I didn't get it.

The banker elaborated:  "I have friends in Sicily.  They send someone to—how you say—make  an offer that cannot be refused.  But first we beat.  Beat first, make offer and leave.  Simple, no?"

Clair and I looked at each other with incredulity.

I dubbed Number Five The Three Bs:  Beat, blab and beat-it.

I could live with “spy and saboteur."  This, of course, was what I had been doing for select clients—and doing it very well.  

But The Three Bs was not and never could be part of my repertoire.

            

In our client’s suite, we rehashed the options.

Number One:  Getting Lara thrown out of the United States.  Too extreme.

Number Two:  The mock-IRS investigation.  Approved.

Number Three:  Manipulating Biggleswurm to exert his paternal legal rights.  Approved.

Number Four: Buddhists.  Boo.

Number Five:  I refused to discuss Number Five.

            

Clair, the banker and I descended to the Metropole's bar while the countess changed for dinner.  She rejoined us in very high spirits.  

"Tonight we will celebrate!" she announce.  She patted Clair’s knee and insisted we all drink dry martinis and toast success.  

Menus were consulted.   Both Clair and I settled on foie gras as an appetizer and a fish called Saint-Pierre.  

We declined soufflé; Clair realized he'd be lucky if he survived the foie gras.

Main thing, we had a plan.  We should have said goodbye.  But the countess was not ready to fold.

"You know," I told Clair over a 1954 Armagnac in La Reserve's bar.  "The plans are approved.  We've peaked.  By hanging around, it can only go south."

"We promised her as much time as she wanted," said Clair.  "We just keep going until she says enough."  He drained his Armagnac and raised a hand to order another.  "But I know what you mean.  The pressure is unbearable."


We did not meet until 2:30 the next afternoon.

The countess asked me a long, drawn-out question about the plan and when I did not understand and asked her to rephrase it, suffering as I was from food coma, she turned on me.  

"Are you sleeping?" she asked.  "Maybe you drink too many martinis."

I threw Clair an I-told-you-so glance.


Clair and I met for aperitifs that evening in anticipation of our client’s arrival.

"You know," he said.  "She's nuts."

"You think so?"

Clair nodded.  "She did a few things, said a few things, that confirmed it for me. She's crazy in the head.  And if she puts her hand in my lap one more time..."

The countess arrived, banker in tow.  She seemed relaxed, less aggressive.

I ordered salmon, which was, of course, the best salmon I'd ever eaten—lubricated by another 1990 Bandol rouge.  This was followed by a selection of cheese, itself followed by a nightcap of 1954 vintage Armagnac in the bar.

The countess, bless her, finally had enough. 

You know what you have to do, she said, so go do it

            

Five pounds heavier apiece, Clair and I flew to London.  

When I telephoned Baron von Biggleswurm to announce my presence, he said, "I was talking to the hedgehog.  I have hedgehog in my ear!"

The countess could not wait even a day before getting on the horn and blasting the baron with a verbal onslaught.

At one o’clock I rang his doorbell.  (Clair found a reason to be elsewhere.) 

Biggleswurm appeared in a bright red vest adorned with brass buttons over a pink check shirt and burgundy patterned tie; a beige jacket with colorful pocket hanky, gray flannel trousers and cream-colored socks—his most outlandish getup yet.  

The baron took a cursory look around his desk for "some writings," but found nothing.

"By next autumn," he announced, "I will have 400 pages."

A maid entered with a half-empty bottle of bubbly and two crystal goblets.  She was about to pour when the phone rang.

"Answer it," Biggleswurm commanded.

She answered.  Whomever it was wanted the baron’s wife, not him. Biggleswurm demanded the phone anyway. "I have my publisher from America here with me," he announced to the caller.

I asked about his family, swiftly turning the subject to his son.  

I impressed upon Biggleswurm the importance of having his son attend college in Europe. 

"College in the USA is mostly about partying,” I said.  “Booze and drugs.”  

The Baron stiffened.  "I must put my foot down."

Mission accomplished (in theory).

And with that I beat a hasty path out of the baron's booby hatch.