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Sunday, November 30, 2014

25. OUR BEAT





Again, Clair and I broke the sound barrier on Concorde to London, and onto Serene City.  We set up operational headquarters in the Beau Rivage bar, cozy nooks with overstuffed chairs.

Lara arrived just past three; we strategized what to tell her son—and what to leave out.  Then we climbed into Lara’s Subaru and sped out of Geneva.

Standing outside his school near a lake, the boy wore a Chicago Bulls cap, a baseball jacket and braces on his teeth.  

As Clair later commented:  “I was expecting a buttoned-up nerdy European kid.  He’s about the most American kid I’ve ever seen.  This guy could flourish in Topeka.”

On the ride back, we talked about baseball and Euro-Disney.

Clair snuck off.   Lara, her son and I strolled to McDonald’s, munched cheeseburgers and fries in a corner.

“All right,” I finally said.  “I guess we’re going to talk about your father.”

The boy giggled nervously.

Lara piped up.  “Yes, you had some questions.  Robert is here to answer them.”

“Let me explain what’s happening,” I said.  “And then you can ask whatever questions you like.  I’ve gotten to know your father.  He doesn’t know that I know your mother.  But because I know him, he tells me what he’s doing, and so I’m able to keep your mother informed.”  I paused.  “Your father sort of lives in another world.”

The boy laughed out loud.  “You can say that again!”  He rollicked in his seat.

“Your father marches to a different drummer,” I continued with discretion.  “He looks down on the world, thinks it is beneath him.  The word he uses is mediocrity.”

The boy laughed again, enjoying this.  “Yeah, I know!”  

“He lives in another age, a kind of dream world, and in this world he is very important.  But he’s your father, and you have to respect your father.  So now let’s move on to why I am involved.  Your family is always worried when you have to visit your father because of the time when he tried to keep you.”

The boy nodded.  “I get worried, too.”

“I know.  But now we have a solution.  You may have noticed that when you were with him last summer I telephoned a lot.”

“Yes.”

“It was because I wanted to know where you were all the time.  If your father had tried to take you somewhere, I would have known, because he would have told me.  I knew that you almost went to Nordeney, that you almost traveled to Salzburg with him, that you stopped in Bad Ragaz before catching your plane in Zurich.”

The boy was amazed.

“If your father would have taken you somewhere to keep you, I would have gone there to get you.”

“Come to my rescue!” the boy whooped.

“Exactly.  Now, I don’t think your father is going to do anything like that again.  But we’re going to make sure that if he ever does, it won’t work.  I will come get you, and take you home, and your mother will be nearby.  Understand?”

“Yes,” said the boy.  “Thank you.”

“You had some questions,” Lara prodded.  “You wanted to know about your father’s humanitarian organization?”

“Yeah, he told me about that,” said the boy.  “Does he have one?”

“Sure, he does,” I said, pointing to my head.  “All in his mind.  Your father has a good imagination.  He would like to do these things.  But for your father, imagining them is enough.”

Daniel laughed.  “Is he writing a book?  He talks about Enigma Books.  Is that you?”

“Yes.  Your father has very grand ideas, and he’s trying to write them as a book.”  I paused.  “Are you happy about this situation?”

“Yes.”

Back at the Beau Rivage, Clair and I retreated to operational headquarters.  The spymaster ordered a scotch and soda.  “I’m having a gall bladder attack,” he said calmly.

“What?”

“It’ll be okay,” he said.  “It happens once a year.  I’m supposed to have it out.”

“What do you do about it?”

“I sit and drink ten scotch and sodas.  That usually does it.  But if the pain continues, I wake up at three in the morning and go to the hospital for a shot of Demerol.”

“I’ll be right back,” I said, returning five minutes later.  “Take two of these.”

“What are they?”

“From England. The perfect combination of aspirin, paracetamol, and codeine.  Take two now, and two if you wake up at three in the morning.”

Clair swallowed them with a gulp of scotch and soda.  

He never needed the other two. 

Next morning we flew to London to catch Concorde.  It was nighttime when we launched out of Heathrow.  For the first fifteen minutes we played cat-and-mouse with the setting sun.  Then I saw something I’d never seen before:  a ninety-minute sunrise—from the east.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

24. THE POWER OF ILLUSION






Following our meeting in St. Moritz, I had faxed Biggleswurm requesting fifty written pages prior to an advance.   

About a month later, when next we spoke, he sounded upset.   

“Your proposal is not realistic, “ he whined.   “My material is in total disorder, not finished, out of context, in German and French, this is how I write.  You keep setting new conditions.  Either you’re ready to go or not.  I came all the way to America.  It cost me two thousand dollars.” 

I let him milk it for all it was worth—and it wasn’t worth much.

“It makes no sense anymore,” Biggleswurm grumbled.  “Any publisher will take this book.”

“I sense a tad of frustration here,” I said.

“I have contacts all around the world!  My name is good! I’m doing a lot of things in my life!”   Biggleswurm worked himself into frenzy, trying to goad me.  But I could not be goaded; I had no reason to argue with him. “If you go on like this, I lose my enthusiasm!  I work on an intellectual level!”

“Of course you do,” I said.  “How have you been?”

“I hurt my hand this morning,” Biggleswurm whimpered.  “It’s swollen.  That’s why I’m in a bad mood.”

“You poor fellow,” I said.  “I had no idea you were unhappy until this moment.  I’ve been expecting to receive a signed contract any day, along with fifty pages of material.  And it didn’t arrive.  So it finally occurred to me, maybe something’s wrong.  I thought you would like my proposal that you provide fifty pages.”

“No, no—I can’t give you.”
 

I phoned the countess.   “If my relationship with Biggleswurm is to continue, I need to give him an advance.”

“How much money?” she asked.

“Five thousand dollars.  Then he’s married to me.  We’ll never have to pay him more because he’ll never write a book.”

“Okay, give him the advance.”  She paused.  “But isn’t he suspicious of you?”

“Don’t underestimate the power of illusion,” I said.  “If someone called Biggleswurm this minute and told him he was being rused he’d think they were nuts.  He wants to believe I am a publisher who will make him famous.”

Biggleswurm sent a signed contract and I cut him a check.  When I phoned him he yakked about how busy he was doing this and that.

“When will you find time to write the book?” I chided.

“I’m getting into the whole thinking,” said Biggleswurm.

“What are you doing for Christmas?” I asked, mindful that his son would visit during the holidays.

“I stay home for Christmas.  Then I leave the first of January.  South somewhere.  Maybe Bali."

“A vacation by yourself?”

“Yaa—I need a vacation.  Then I return January 20th to collect my wife.  If she wants to come.”

“Where to?”

Rent a house somewhere in the Caribbean.”

In his mind, Biggleswurm was already spending my five grand.


Lara phoned and told me she had explained to her son my role in their lives.  “He wants to talk to you.”

“Sure.  Put him on.”

After fifteen months of looking after his best interests, the time had come for me to speak with the boy, now aged ten.

“Hello?” said a boy’s voice, meek, unsure.  “I don’t want to visit my father over New Year.”

“Are you worried about anything in particular?”

“Yes, it’s horrible.  My father yells and argues with me.”

“Is there anything you especially fear?” I asked.

“That he will keep me there and not let me go.  He’s done it before.”

“Listen,” I said.  “I don’t want you to worry about that.  I want you to know that I will know where you are at all times.  If your father tries to keep you there, or if he takes you somewhere else, I’ll know—and I’ll come get you and take you home, okay?”

“Okay.”

“And you know not to tell your father that we’ve spoken or that I know your mother?”

“Of course.”

“Good.  I’ll probably call while you’re there.  You may even answer the phone, but you’ve got to pretend you don’t know me, right?”

“Right.”

“Okay, let me speak with your mother again.” 

Lara got on.  “He’s really frightened.  Me, too.  He wants to meet you.  He has questions.”

When I told Clair George about this development, he shook his head. “Never trust kids with secrets,” he said.


Friday, November 28, 2014

23. MADAM GODDAM





Summer 1992


Clair George and I took our seats aboard British Airways Concorde.

I started scribbling.

“What are you taking notes on?” he asked.

“Everything.”

Clair put his hands over his eyes, real or mock angst.

He knew I was going to write all this eventually.  He said, more than once, “Wait till after I’ve gone and then write a great spy book.”

The food and drink wasn’t as good as with Air France Concorde, but flight time just as fast and we arrived to a balmy seventy degrees in London.

Alpha 26 faithfully awaited our arrival, but the gas lamp on his dashboard was lit, indicating a near empty tank.  He perceived this a challenge thrown up by the devil.  

“It’s terrible what’s going on,” he moaned.  “Ritual child abuse at the highest levels, and anyone who finds out is hushed up.  Freemasonry.  Your President Clinton is a Freemason, you know.”

“Doesn’t surprise me,” said Clair.  “Clinton is a member of everything.  The Lions.  The Rotarians.  There’s nothing he’s not a member of.”

“Oh,” said Alpha 26.


Next morning Clair and I floated around Jermyn Street, perusing the shop fronts of fine shirt-makers.  I tried to talk Clair into buying a purple velvet smoking jacket at Turnbull & Asser, but he had none of it.  

“I hate English shirts,” he said.  “I don’t know why I bother looking at them.”

Onto a restaurant called Caprice to meet Piers, a private eye.
I had found Piers, a Brit, through an old friend who’d been extremely satisfied by his work.  Clair always said, “If you’re investigating someone in Switzerland, don’t hire a Swiss for the job.  Use Germans against the English, English against the French…”

So I’d met Piers a month earlier in Paris to explain the problem:

“I’m handling a highly complicated child custody dispute.  I’m on the mother’s side, but unknown to the mother, my client is her mother, the grandmother.”

“Huh?” 

“That’s right.  The mother thinks I’m a gift from God who is paid by a trust fund created by her late father.  I’ve managed to become best friends with the child’s father, a wacky baron, who believes our friendship is based on his destiny to become a bestselling author.

“But that’s just part of it,” I continued.  “Our client believes her daughter is influenced, perhaps manipulated, by a woman, a Buddhist, who may view my client’s daughter as a lifetime meal ticket.  We call her Madam Goddam.

“That’s where you come in.  We need to know everything you can find out about Madam Goddam.”

Piers had conducted an investigation, and now he briefed the spymaster and me.

“We tracked down Goddam’s parents in Belgium, They’re a couple of old hippies, mid-seventies.  Nice people—from the Land of Nod.  Goddam doesn’t visit often.  But they receive her mail—voting cards and such—and forward it to Switzerland.  They’re Buddhist.  They told our investigator Goddam is a good Buddhist and very honest.  They say their daughter moved to Switzerland because, and I quote, ‘There is a better atmosphere for Buddhism in Switzerland than in Belgium.’

“She has a reputation for sexual promiscuity from way back,” added Piers.  “She ran off with an American colonel once—yes, he was married—and they lived together in the U.S. for seven years.

“Her husband [Lara’s chauffeur] worked for a security company as a guard. I spoke with his ex-boss.  He’s clean.  No criminal record.  This probably isn’t what you wanted to hear.”

I shook my head.  “We want to hear the truth.”

Piers turned to Clair.  “Just out of curiosity, how does it feel to do what you’re doing now?”

Replied Clair, “I’m not doing anything now.”

The spymaster never missed an opportunity to keep his mouth shut.

Somehow, Alpha 26 had discovered that Clair had been CIA’s spymaster. 

“How long till you lot f--- up the Middle East?” he asked.

“Not long,” replied Clair.  “Maybe a week.”

This startled Alpha 26.  “How?”

“We’ll take out Arafat.”

“You mean kill him?”

“Of course.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s an ugly piece of s---.  And fat, too.  And because we just don’t like Arabs.”

For once, Alpha 26 was speechless.  Which, I guess, was Clair’s objective. 


So impressed was I by Piers, and what could be achieved by private detectives compared to investigative reporters, I went to see Stuart Kuttner, Investigations Editor at News of the World, the UK’s largest circulation Sunday tabloid.

I had first met Kuttner in the late 1970s when I sold investigative stories to Fleet Street newspapers, and we had stayed in sporadic contact through the next decade. 

I made my pitch:  Why not use private investigators to acquire sensitive information?

Kuttner apparently ran with my idea—albeit without Piers’ or my involvement (which was a good thing).

Fifteen years later, the News of the World's use of private eyes to hack into the telephone messaging accounts of celebrities and other journalistic targets would result in multiple arrests—including his own—and the termination of News of the World.


We glided into Serene City.  I couldn’t get us into Hotel Des Bergues this trip, so I’d booked the Beau Rivage.   

My room was a grand salon with two sets of French windows and frescoed angels on the ceiling, a king bed beneath a crystal chandelier, a coffee table and chair, a writing table and a bowl of strawberries compliments of the manager.

I showed it to Clair.  “You could run a war from this room,” I said.

“We once did,” he replied.
Next morning, the countess welcomed us with a kiss on each cheek in the Gray Fiduciary’s office.  “So,” said the countess.  “Tell me.”

“This is a very complicated situation,” Clair began.  He reminded the countess that our objective, all along, was to protect her grandson.   Another Clairism:  Stick to brief.   “We have two problems,” he continued. “One is the baron, who we know is crazy and will only get crazier with time.  He’s a big phony, and his new wife is beginning to realize this.  That marriage won’t last, and, as time goes by, the baron will need money, and he’s going to believe his son should be his meal ticket.  So he’s going to cause a lot more trouble.”

The countess nodded.  She adored Clair.

“The other problem is this Madam Goddam,” Clair flailed his arms around.  “She’s a flower child from the sixties.  She has slept her way around Europe.  But she’s not a bad person from what we know.  She’s Buddhist…”

The countess interrupted.  “So she is Buddhist.  I see now.”

“Countess, let me be honest with you,” said Clair.  “Buddhism isn’t bad.  Different, yes, but there are many religions that are a lot worse.”

“Lara is a Catholic,” said the countess.  “That’s how I brought her up.  A Catholic.  Not Buddhist.  This is terrible.” 

“These seem like nice people,” said Clair, referring to Goddam and her husband.  “The problem is, Lara relies on them for everything and cuts you and everyone else off. The good news is that Robert, here, has gotten close to Lara.  She listens to him, trusts him.  And what I’d like to see here is Robert get into her circle, to become more influential in Lara’s life.”

The countess seized on this “ingenious” idea, which I had no idea was coming until Clair said it.  Neither had he.

“And now Robert has some reports to show you,” Clair finished, bowing out.

I had thought this might be our final meeting, and was actually hoping it would be, so I could wash my hands of Baron von Biggleswurm.

But the countess seemed more determined than ever to renew the soap opera she produced, directed, and in which she enjoyed a starring role.  I realized, sitting there, that this was her entertainment in old age.

“You mean I have to keep dealing with that crackpot baron?” I said.  “Countess, no one deserves this kind of torture.”  

The countess chuckled and said she would see us in New York in a month.



Wednesday, November 26, 2014

22. ST. MORITZ






Summer 1992



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 sea. 

Pierre turned up at 7:30.  French by residence 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, enjoy the scenery.

Destination:  St. Moritz.

Objective:  Assess Baron von Biggleswurm’s fluctuating state of mind; learn his plans for the coming months.

We ascended into the mountains behind Monaco, picked up the autoroute, and a hundred-plus tunnels toward Genoa.

“This is the situation,” I said.  “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,” said Pierre.

“You know me as a book publisher.  We’re going to meet a German 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 4 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?”

It was bad all right.  We came face-to-face with Biggleswurm, he be-robed in spa dress, looking down his nose through granny glasses.  “You made it!”

“Baron—you look great!”

His face had 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 the countess from the Kulm’s switchboard; Biggleswurm had been a guest at that hotel for forty 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!”

“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?”

“This town is too small.  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.

The baron suggested we have a drink at the Palace Hotel, a hub to St. Moritz society.  He strolled in as if he owned the place—and a disapproving owner he was, rolling his eyes at a Cartier exhibition. 

“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.”

“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.  The Inevitable Collapse of Culture in the Twentieth Century.  Good, yaa?”

“Bit isn’t your book supposed to prevent such a collapse?”

“Yaa, I have another:  The Escape of Spiritual Death.”

“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 mimicked a wicked Indian accent.  “But my wife is thirty-two!’”  Biggleswurm laughed uproariously.

Pierre and I exchanged glances.  Had we missed the punch line?

“I have another,” said Biggleswurm.  “What do Beatles carry?”

The baron looked at us for an answer.  No one 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 into existential claptrap.  

After dinner, Biggleswurm insisted on driving me to nearby Sils Maria.  He showed me Nietzsche’s house, then to 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.  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 and thrust it at him, virtually the same contract I had presented 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 to 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 once told me, The only sure way to kill someone without leaving a trace is to throw him off a building.

We 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?”

“Nope.”

“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.”

“WHAT?”

“He was the chief conceptualizer for Baader-Meinhof.  It was originally Baader-Meinhof-Biggleswurm, but they decided 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!”

“About time.”

“So what’s supposed to happen next?” asked Pierre.

“He’s marked.”

“Marked?”

“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.”



Tuesday, November 25, 2014

21. MONACO





Summer 1993

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 three months he had tripped and split open his hand (requiring thirty-eight stitches), suffered der grippe and now this.

I phoned the countess to keep her apprised.  “Biggleswurm is unwell again.”

“Ah, that’s nice.  Any other good news?”

“Countess, I must ask you—are you doing voodoo on this man?”

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.”

“Yaa?”

“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.  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.  (I did not say this.)

“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!



Monday, November 24, 2014

20. GENEVA






Clair’s wife followed him out of their Allan Road house.  “Don’t forget,” she said.  “Two Advil, three times a day.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered.

“Another hangover?” I asked cheekily.

“No,” his wife answered.  “His knee hurts him.”

“Don’t worry,” I said.  “I’ve got something better than Advil.”

“Heroin?” said Clair, dropping his bag into the trunk.  

He wore his customary raincoat over navy blazer, red tie and slacks, and I an open-neck shirt and jeans and sunglasses instead of a tie

We shuttled to LaGuardia, cabbed to JFK, and boarded Concorde.  

A French flight attendant offered champagne.

“It is Dom?” I asked.

“But of course,” she admonished.

“She sure told you,” said Clair.

Thus began a four-course lunch including caviar, king crab, filet mignon and wines with these names: Chateau Cantenac-Broun and Grand Cru Classe de Margeaux.

We soared from morning into night, a whole day passing in three hours, twenty-seven minutes, in a comfort zone higher than the sleek bird’s 60,000-feet.

Departing the baggage terminal, a phalanx of photographers clamored around.  

Uh-oh—what had we done?  

They rushed past us and circled Tony Curtis, a fellow passenger; we stole off to the taxi rank.

“Hyatt Regency,” I said to a cabbie. 

 “Paris?” he asked.

“No, their airport hotel.”

“No, no,” he said.  “No aeroport.”

Clair tried to haggle with him, but it was no use.  The cabbie wanted a fare to central Paris, not an airport hotel.

We approached a second cabbie.  Same problem.  

We trudged back inside to an Air France counter.  “We just flew in on Concorde,” I explained.  “We want to get to the airport Hyatt Regency and those cabbies won’t take us.”

“Ah, zee bus,” said a Frenchwoman.  She blew a raspberry.

“Look,” I said.  “While we waited for our luggage there was an announcement that said, ‘Concorde passengers, let us know if there is anything we can do for you.’  Well, here we are, and there’s something you can do for us.  We don’t want to wait for a bus.  We want a car to take us now, and we don’t mind paying for it.”

This woman looked at me, like, so what?

“Call the Hyatt Regency,” I suggested.  “Or get an Air France car to drive us over.”

She picked up her phone, dialed a number, spoke in French, and reverted to us.  “Zee hotel says zere will be a bus.”

Suddenly, Clair erupted.  “There is no bus!  We were out there and they told us no more buses!”

She picked up the phone, dialed; spoke, listened, hung up.  “A bus is coming.”

Clair and I looked at each other.  Even two creative problem-solvers like us were not going to crack this code.  (Clair always talked about cracking codes to resolve a situation.)  

We trudged to Exit 6, as instructed—and just missed a Hyatt Regency bus.

Fifteen minutes later, another bus pulled up.  We climbed aboard.  At this midnight hour we were bestowed the grand tour of Charles de Gaulle Airport, including its train station.  It would have been faster to cab to central Paris.


Come morning, an early flight to Serene City.  

Ten minutes, Hotel Des Bergues, my room phone rang.  

“I’ve booked a table for lunch in the hotel,” said the countess.”   I’ll meet you in the lobby at 1:15.  The maestro, he’s here, yes?”

Maestro was our client’s pet name for Clair.

Downstairs, the hotel staff groveled for the countess, and some of their groveling extended, by association, to the spymaster and me, resulting in extra-special service during our stay.

The specialty this day in L’Amthyron was fresh asparagus.  Scared silly by the utensil laid down for eating asparagus, I declined to order it rather than risk disgracing myself.  But the countess soon taught me the right way to eat asparagus.  Ignoring the proctology instrument, she gracefully plucked the asparagus from her plate, dunked the spears into Hollandaise, bit them off and discarded the stem.

Clair looked on in awe, I, in envy; the asparagus looked delicious.

When lunch was over—it was more social than business—Clair and I taxied across the city for our meeting with Lara.  The Gray Fiduciary introduced us and we explained that we had been retained to monitor her ex-husband.

Lara was very gracious, and grateful, if oddly attired.  She possessed a complexion as pale as Snow White, accentuated by jet-black long hair and chilling blue eyes.  

After some awkward small-talk over glasses of kir, I got to the point.  “I’ve become friends with Baron von Biggleswurm.”

Lara gasped.  “My ex-husband?”

I nodded.  “Yes.  The best way for us to know what he is going to do next is for him to tell me,” I explained.  “And now he tells me everything.”

Lara sat riveted.

Clair added his two cents worth:  “You’re lucky to be rid of him—he’s a nut.”

Lara read the report I had prepared, and looked at photos—for verisimilitude sake—of the spymaster and me with her ex-husband. (Clair hadn’t snagged all of them.)

“You may want to prohibit visitation with Biggleswurm this summer,” I concluded.  “He has voiced an intention to take your son to Dubrovnik, where war is raging, and also said he may hold onto the boy after his visitation expires.”

At our client’s behest (an idea the countess brainstormed over lunch), I suggested Lara uproot from Switzerland and move to the United States, where Biggleswurm’s visitation rights could be curtailed for years through new litigation.  I pointed out that courts in the United States actually considered what the child had to say.  “On top of which,” I pointed out, “Your ex-husband, if he wanted to proceed, would have to initiate new litigation at great expense.”  And since he was a big-talking do-nothing, I added, he would probably talk big and do nothing. 

Lara, most enthused, said she would do anything in her power to make life easier for her son, including a move to the United States, which actually appealed to her.  

Clair and I walked Lara along Rue du Rhone until she found a bridge to cross.

“You sneaky bastard,” I said to Clair as we strolled the other direction.  “You did it again.”

He looked at me, a quizzical expression.

“The photos,” I said.  “You bagged them.”

“Oh, those,” he said, and kept on walking.

I never saw them again.

“In my whole life,” said Clair, “I’ve never seen a woman wear an orange outfit with pink shoes.  This woman is out of touch with the world.”

Back at Des Bergues, I reclined in an easy chair and collected my thoughts.  Here I was, a secret agent to a countess, travelling with a legendary spymaster, learning his craft, creating intricate illusions, launched and lunched aboard Concorde… how, I asked myself, did a little boy who used to religiously watch The Man From U.N.C.L.E. on TV, and daydream about being a secret agent, ever land a dream job like this?

A ringing phone pierced my stream of consciousness.  The countess, two rooms away, desired to see me.  (She owned a home in Geneva, but preferred the hustle-bustle of a hotel to ease her loneliness.)  “Tell me,” she said.

“Lara says she will move to the United States to avoid sending the boy to Biggleswurm this summer.”

“Oh, I’m so happy!”  She clasped her hands.  “It’s too good to be true.”
It was.  Soon after our arrival home, Lara called to say she’d changed her mind.  

“Why should I give up my home, my lifestyle?” she asked rhetorically.

Well, because your demented ex-husband is bent on taking your son to Yugoslavia, where Serbs and Moslems are shooting guns at each other with no concern about who is in their cross fire.

But Lara remained resolute.  We’d just have to do our jobs, she said, and monitor Biggleswurm; ensure that no harm would come to her son.

Meantime, Lara turned the tables on her ex-husband and got a psychiatrist to attest that the boy was terribly unhappy with his father.  I first heard about it from the baron.  He was livid, and vented his rage though der grippe—hacking, sneezing, and coughing.  “They’re trying to invent that the child doesn’t want to see me!” Biggleswurm spluttered.  “Can you imagine?  I need to do something drastic!”

“Like what?”

“Never give him back.  I’ve just written a nasty letter to that quack.  I’ll get a penalty against her in Germany for interfering with the father-son relationship!”

One month later, the boy was due to join his father.

It would be my job to rescue our client’s grandson if Biggleswurm attempted to hold him beyond the allocated five weeks.