Clair and I rolled south on Massachusetts Avenue in the backseat of a Lincoln Towncar, a quiet April Sunday morning. The lushness of spring thickened beneath a drenching rain that hadn’t quit in three days.
The Towncar veered to the curb and slowed to a halt. A light flashed red behind us.
"What did you do?" I asked our West Indian driver.
A short, sinewy bastard in a police uniform and ranger-style hat appeared in Salah's window. "Driver's license, registration," he snapped. He wore a mousy boxcar mustache that framed his stern words with unintentional comedy. "Step out of the car."
Clair and I exchanged glances. Five minutes into this new adventure and already we brushed authority.
"Why did you bring a raincoat?" I asked Clair.
"It's raining," he said.
"Not in New Mexico." The forecast was 75 degrees and sunny.
Clair removed his glasses and rubbed his sore eyes. “I drank too much wine last night and packed twenty minutes ago," he sighed. "I couldn't think straight, so I grabbed everything."
Our driver got back behind the wheel.
"What'd you do?" I asked.
"He said I insulted him," replied Salah.
"He was doing thirty, the speed limit, and I overtook him. He said it was just like giving him the finger."
"Of all the goddamn things." Clair shook his head. "You'd think the police have more important things to do in this town. I never pass police cruisers. And that guy was a mean, pip-squeaking sonofabitch. I could tell looking at his eyes." Clair could look into a person's eyes and determine, in ten seconds, their character—and I.Q. "What happened was,” Clair snickered, “he looked back here and saw the two most important guys in Washington, so he let you go."
Salah careened to a stop outside the old terminal at Reagan-National Airport and we checked in for TWA's flight to St. Louis.
Sitting in first class seats, Clair and I toasted our client’s renewed feistiness with glasses of pre-flight bubbly.
Her assignment was as straightforward as this MD80's flight-path west: find out what the dickens her daughter was doing, and determine if it impacted negatively on her grandson.
"All she talks to me about is her cat," the countess had complained. "So I know she's up to something.”
We cruised at 31,000 feet, swapping jokes and Sunday newspaper sections.
On the second, shorter leg of the journey, I copped a snooze, waking to see the Texas panhandle below, a vast wasteland of brown sand and prairie brush and roads that run in straight lines to further nothingness.
The expanse of land was even browner on the western side of the Sandia Mountains, over which we skewed for a final descent into Albuquerque.
A terminal in peach and turquoise, and angular southwestern patterns, welcomed us. Clair forked off to the baggage carousel and I aimed for Avis, which produced a brand spanking new Cadillac Seville we immediately dubbed The Whale.
Minutes later, we lurched out of the airport and zoomed north on I-25. I floored The Whale, pushing ninety uphill. Next to me, Clair fiddled with hi-tech gadgets and gizmos, adjusting the air-conditioning and the stereo's volume. His fantasy, since childhood, he confided, was to own a Cadillac, the ultimate American car.
"Why don't you buy one?" I said.
"Are you kidding? My kids would laugh at me."
So he was content just riding in this one, gaping at the scenery. "This place looks exactly like India," he said, having once been stationed in New Delhi.
I got lost after exiting the interstate too soon. When you're near most cities, you simply look up—and the skyscrapers beckon you in. Not this town. Even up close, Santa Fe is hidden from view.
"It's near," I said. "You just can't see it."
Clair was astounded—his first sense of what this place was about (especially in the context of our client’s daughter): Hiding out.
I slowed The Whale to ask directions. A man and a woman cursed one another from opposite sides of the road.
"Keep driving," said Clair. "They're having an argument."
I suppose he didn't want to be caught in crossfire if it turned ugly.
I suppose he didn't want to be caught in crossfire if it turned ugly.
"So what?" I lowered my window.
"Go to hell you goddamn slut!" the man ranted.
"Which way to the Plaza?" I tossed at him.
"Just follow this road," he said politely while his wife or girlfriend cursed him. Finished with me, he turned on her. "I said shut up, you whore!"
The Old Santa Fe Trail did indeed lead us to the Plaza, the heart of Santa Fe's historical district.
"Here we are," I announced.
"This is it?" Clair looked around, under-whelmed.
"It takes a few days to get used to," I said. "It's very subtle." Everything was adobe brown and it was sunny, not a cloud in the ultra-blue sky. "Good thing you brought your raincoat," I added.
I circled The Plaza, past the Palace of Governors, the oldest government building in the United States, its arcade jammed with Native Americans peddling hammered silver, then onward three blocks to the Eldorado, the biggest, best hotel in town.
We dumped The Whale onto a valet, checked into a pair of rooms, and hit the streets. First stop, a dime store on the Plaza, to purchase straw cowboy hats from Broner of Mississippi, thirty bucks apiece. This was to blend in—more pointedly, not be recognized on the street by Lara.
Although Santa Fe is the capital of New Mexico, it is a small town. In my blue jeans, I could pull off Santa Fe style. Clair, in his silver hair, button-down shirt, and khaki trousers looked like a Washingtonian in a cowboy hat.
"I should have brought my fake moustache," he said.
We strolled the circuit in our new hats, doing jewelry shops, art galleries, and La Fonda Hotel for espresso before returning to the Eldorado for downtime.
Down didn't last long. We were up to meet Gary in the Eldorado's lobby at six-thirty; he had scheduled us to meet with Santa Fe insiders.
"Where can we get some good food?" I asked Gary.
We set off by foot to Garduno’s.
One block in, Gary pointed to another restaurant. "The Palace has the best food in town. But it's expensive."
Clair and I looked at each other with amused expressions. "Let's eat at the Palace," we said in unison.
The Palace's interior was New Jersey Italian: a red glow, table dressings overdone, and brothers who ran the joint, one as front-end host, the other, back-end chef.
A young waiter from California suggested we aperitif ourselves with "silver dollars," a fancy margarita with Cointreau instead of Triple sec, and silver-label tequila. We obliged him, clinked glass tumblers and soused our gullets.
Gary went over our schedule before revealing to us the “billion dollar deal” he was on the verge of sealing. "It's incredible," he said, "and I wouldn't believe it myself if I didn't see it happening in front of me."
Clair and I sipped Opus One wine and listened. We'd sat through another such billion dollar deal only one month before, when a scamster tried to solicit Clair’s name and support for his board of advisers.
The scam usually works like this: There's a billion dollars to be carved up, if only five hundred grand can be raised to cover minor administrative and logistical costs. So the entry fee for a bunch of investors is fifty grand apiece, but it's a sure bet it'll pay five million-plus within three months.
My friend Moono, the sting-undercover specialist for the IRS, investigated hundreds of scams like this, nationwide. What amazed him most was that long after the scamster disappeared, the scammee still refused to believe he'd been scammed.
Gary's deal was based on the super-networking of a 73 year-old Argentine woman, supposedly one of six people in the world engaged in some kind of special bank trading program.
"She can make 600 percent on your money in three months," said Gary. "The minimum entry investment is ten million."
"She's not asking you for any money, is she?" Clair enquired.
Gary shrugged. "I don't have any. I'm working with her. After she makes her first deal she's going to deposit two hundred and fifty thousand dollars into my bank account as a show of good faith. She already has my wiring instructions. Yep, this is the real McCoy."
"I hope," said Clair, "you're not planning to quit your day job until after the money arrives in your account."
"Of course not," said Gary. "It took a while, but I finally figured out where the money comes from to pay off 600 percent in three months."
"Where's that?" I asked.
"It's the money in flux between international wiring transactions," said Gary. "You know, when you ask a bank to wire somebody money from overseas and it takes five days to get there. Where is it for four days?"
I'd often wondered that myself. Now I knew. In between departure and arrival, these funds go to a 73 year-old Argentine woman in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
There was little point trying to dissuade Gary from associating himself with this enterprise. It wasn't costing him money, only time, and he was using it to crank-start his mornings in pursuit of the proverbial pot of gold at rainbow's end.
We'd get a closer look at the Argentine woman at a dinner party Gary planned two days hence.