Next morning, I found Clair and we called for The Whale.
Map in hand, we rolled north to Circle Drive, an exclusive road on which Lara had bought her house.
"This is supposed to be the ritziest residential street in Santa Fe?" Clair contorted his face, awed by the dirt road.
We donned our cowboy hats for a drive-by.
Most of the houses on Circle Drive were hidden from view, behind landscaping designed to camouflage its residents. A hideout mentality. The road's elevation ensured spectacular vistas on both sides; miles and miles of desert and mountains that emphasized nature, not people.
"Slow down," barked Clair, watching numbered addresses.
From the look of her enigmatic property, Lara was one of the most hidden. The house dropped into a ravine, shielded by a ten-foot high gate.
"I can't see anything," said Clair.
I drove on. As its name suggests, Circle Drive rounded to a point where we could spy a side view of the adobe structure.
"What's that?" said Clair.
"That." He pointed. "On the roof."
"Solar panels," I replied.
"No. That other thing."
"What other thing?" I squinted for better focus. "Oh, yeah. I see it now. Some kind of flag?"
Running the length of a twelve-foot flagstaff, a narrow white flag, fluttering in the breeze. I accelerated in search of another angle from which to view the house.
"Stop!" hollered Clair. "Look, another one!"
This one had been staked into the garden. It was yellow.
A woman in a floppy sun hat strolled nearby. Clair leaned out of The Whale. "We're looking at those flags," he said. "Do you know anything about them?"
"The owner staked out her whole property line with those things," said the stroller. "We think it's some kind of ceremonial thing."
"Who lives there?" asked Clair.
"Nobody knows her." The stroller shook her head. "She hasn't been around long. We think she's from Texas."
Five minutes later, an epiphany struck Clair as we rolled past the Plaza. "I know what those things are." He smiled. "They're Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags."
"I don't think our countess is going to like that," said I, savoring my understatement.
"She's a very canny woman," said Clair. "She suspected something like this." He nodded. "Well, I'll be f-----. Buddhist prayer flags."
At five-thirty that afternoon, Clair and I met a Texas-born attorney and adventure-seeker. Gary had told us that this hirsute, straight-talker was too busy to tackle our project, but could recommend the right investigator.
Clair announced that he and I were representing one of the great fortunes of the world.
Mr. T considered Clair’s words. "You know," he said, "I'd like a crack at this myself." He paused. "This kind of thing is not unusual to Santa Fe. We get a lot of rich heiresses running away from home. For some reason, most of them like to come here. There's a lot of good reason for relatives to worry."
"Why's that?" I asked.
"Because we got a lot of cults and religious sects here that pride themselves on identifying and targeting people with money, especially wealthy heiresses who've run away from home."
If Mr. T were looking for the right buttons to push, he'd found a few. Clair seized on this to describe the strange flags we'd seen fluttering earlier that day.
Mr. T nodded. "Sounds like Buddhist prayer flags. We've got a pretty good size Buddhist community here. I've got some good contacts among the French Buddhists."
French Buddhists. Our client’s daughter had lived in the French region of Switzerland and had been heavily influenced by Madam Goddam.
Our next meeting was with Mr. C, a local private eye and descendant of Spanish conquistadores who had settled New Mexico years before the Pilgrims set sail to Plymouth Rock.
I outlined the problem, emphasizing our client’s concern for her grandson. As we did with Mr. T, we told Mr. C we'd get back to him, though we were already convinced he was the right snoop for us.
Gary suggested I meet a friend of his named Eliza, whom he described as a "photo-journalist freelancer in limbo between Boomer and Generation X—a wild, party-loving cross between la femme Nikita and Sharon Shone." Of course, I had to meet her.
"Are you going to see Eliza?" Gary asked me.
"Who's Eliza?" demanded Clair.
"None of your business," I said, tongue-in-cheek.
"I want to see Eliza, too," said Clair.
"You can't," I said. "Nothing to do with you."
Eliza appeared in the Eldorado's lobby just past four. She'd brought her portfolio along, and for 45 minutes she conducted a show-and-tell about her life in photojournalism, including her adventures in Mexico exposing drug-dealers for The New York Times. Her buoyant character, blue jeans, black-and-white cowboy boots... I deluded myself that a role existed for her in this saga.
At ten past five, Eliza readied herself to leave. "Maybe we could meet again later?" she said. "I could get off at about nine-thirty?"
Fifteen minutes later, Clair and I set off on foot for Vanessie's, three blocks away.
Gary and Miss Janie, a 73 year-old Argentine woman, awaited us in the bar.
I opted for chardonnay; Clair stuck with tequila, opting for gold label at Miss Janie's insistence.
Miss Janie had Clair’s ear, and with it he vacuumed her stories, one by one, while his brain filed and cross-referenced.
Then we relocated to the dining room.
"I'm about to embark on a thirty-day trip around the world," Miss Janie whispered to me. "We're just waiting for the Philippine elections and a few last-minute glitches to be resolved." She sipped her wine. "I'm starting in Hong Kong, and working my way back through Switzerland."
We ordered food and wine. Clair continued to dispatch gold label tequila.
"Meyer Lansky and I used to walk our poodles together in Havana," said Miss Janie. "He'd always talk in a whisper. I'd say, 'Speak up, Meyer, I can't hear you.' I was in Cuba when Castro marched in and took power. He requisitioned my ninth floor penthouse for himself. Meyer and I had to leave Cuba in a hurry."
"What about this special banking program?" I asked.
"Very few people know about this." Miss Janie touched my wrist. "And there are only six of us who are allowed by the Federal Reserve Board to make deals like this. Owners of some of the biggest banks don't even know about it."
Janie shook her head. "It's really quite amazing. I went to see the owner of Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C. with Mr. Wal-Mart..."
"Right." She nodded. "We sat down and I told the owner of Riggs bank all about my special trading, because Mr. Wal-Mart, who did his banking at Riggs, wanted to invest in my program. And the owner of Riggs said, 'Miss Janie, you're going to end up leaving this office in handcuffs.' And I said, please ask two of your senior officers, Mr. X and Mr. Y, to join us, and they'll confirm what I'm talking about, because your bank is already engaged in my kind of special deals. The owner of Riggs didn't want to do that, but Mr. Wal-Mart insisted, so he summoned the two men to his office, and I repeated what I'd said about my trading program. The owner said to his two officers, 'We don't engage in anything like that in this bank, do we?' And the two officers looked at each other and said, 'Um, yes, sir, we do.' And with that, Mr. Wal-Mart got up and said, 'I'm going to deal with Miss Janie. Close my account—I’m moving my money out of here.'"
When the filet mignon arrived, we ate bull, instead of listening to it, and I was relieved to part company with Miss Janie, as, by this time, I had identified her scam: Divorced twice and living by herself, Miss Janie was just a lonely old woman craving the companionship of younger men. It was either stay home and get bored to tears by dumb TV sit-coms—or get taken out for good grub and fine wine by charming gentlemen like Gordon.
At dinner's end, Clair and I wished Miss Janie a happy, prosperous journey around the world—a journey that faced perpetual postponement due to various “glitches,” until Gordon grew weary, stopped inviting Miss Janie out, and she'd recruit another young male to escort her around town.
Clair concurred with my assessment over drinks in the Eldorado's lounge, where I awaited Eliza. When she appeared, Clair introduced himself as Charles Gearhart, and repaired to his room.
"Where's he from, Langley?" asked Eliza.
"That obvious?" I smiled. "So tell me, what makes Santa Fe tick?"
She laughed. "A lot of weird people here."
Eliza had come to Santa Fe from the East Coast. She was into her fourth year, barely cutting it with occasional freelance assignments for New Mexico magazine.
"Who are the weirdest?" I asked.
"Hard to say." Eliza considered this. "The diaper-heads are a leading contender."
"Diaper-heads, Q-tips. They're the ones with the whiter than white turbans. American sikhs. They're very wealthy—and big into security."
"No," said Eliza. "Alarm systems. They own the biggest security contractor in the area. Anyway, if you want to see what makes Santa Fe tick, you've got to get away from the Eldorado."
"For a start, Evangelo's."
"That bikers bar down the street? Let's do it." I settled the tab.
"I'll introduce you to Santa Fe's biggest drug dealer," said Eliza, as we walked. "He hangs out there with his brother. They're both paraplegics." We passed Eliza's old Toyota Landcruiser, bashed at the front end. "I'm trying to save money to fix that."
Santa Fe's biggest drug dealer and his brother weren't holding court at Evangelo's this night. It was quiet, winding down. Eliza and I took a couple of stools, ordered drinks.
"The masons," said Eliza.
Eliza nodded. "The Scottish Masonic Temple. Did you see it?"
"Yeah." Clair and I had driven past the old Scottish Masonic Temple while out snooping.
"That's who really runs things," said Eliza.
"In Santa Fe?"
"The world," whispered Eliza. "I'm going to infiltrate them, expose them."
"Good show," I said. "So, we've got the diaper-heads and the masons. Who else makes Santa Fe tick?"
"The Buddhists," said Eliza.
"Ah, the Buddhists." I smiled to myself. "What's their story?"
"Corruption, embezzlement. And now they're having a civil war."
"But Buddhists aren't suppose to harm a fly," I said. "How can they have a war?"
"The Thunder God," said Eliza. "Shugden is the Buddhist God that's supposed to protect Tibetan Buddhism from all evils. A couple of years ago, the Dalai Lama banned worship of Shugden because the Buddhist sect that worships Shugden was becoming a fanatical cult. In response, Shugden worshipers announced that the Dalai Lama was not the true leader of Buddhism. They've been at odds ever since. There were even a few murders in India."
I phoned Clair at seven a.m., "You coming to The Plaza for breakfast?"
It was his last chance to jumpstart the morning with red and green chili peppers.
"Nah. I had a rough night."
"I don't know. My dreams had me tossing and turning all night long. I'm exhausted."
"What kind of dreams do that?"
"It was awful," said Clair. "Can you believe, Howard Safir [former chief of the U.S. Marshal Service] on a high wire doing a trapeze act?"
Two hours later we settled our account with the Eldorado. Clair looked pallid and disheveled. I'd seen him on trips put away two scotch and sodas, a bottle of wine, and an Armagnac, and not resemble anything like this.
I climbed behind the wheel. "It was the tequila," I said. “It comes from the peyote plant, like mescaline. Hallucinogenic properties."
Clair shook his head. "I was in a king-size bed, but I almost fell out of it a few times."
"Why didn't you get up, drink a glass of water?"
"You kidding? I was riveted, couldn't break away from seeing what might happen next." He sighed. "I haven't worked so hard in years."
We took a final sweep around Circle Drive, mostly to see if Buddhist flags were still flying.
They were, in different colors.
"Someone's changed them," said Clair. "Different colors mean different things to Buddhists. Serious Buddhists change them daily. It just shows, she's really serious about this."
"What color is Shugden?" I asked.
"It's the Buddhist God of Thunder."
Clair looked at me through sore eyes. "How'd you suddenly get so damn smart?"
"E-li-za," I sang.
"Oh. What's her story?"
"She thinks the masons are responsible for everything."
"Main thing," I said, "she's a night-owl, knows the under-belly of this town. And she needs money. Maybe we'll pay her to investigate the local Buddhists for us."
Clair was still in a daze from his hallucinatory dreams. "Where are we going?"
"Our flight's not till 2:20 so we're going the long way, through Madrid."
"Spain?" Clair scratched his head "After last night, I guess anything's possible."
I steered The Whale off I-25 onto Route 14 and wound through scenic desert and hills. I don't know what I expected, but the reality of Madrid—an old mining town overtaken by hippies in the 1960s—was just a sad jumble of arts and crafts boutiques, junk shops, and the Mine Shaft Tavern.
Soon after, a shell-shocked Gary phoned from Santa Fe. After a series of "glitches" delayed Miss Janie’s whirlwind trip through the financial capitals of the world, she told Gary she no longer found him compatible for a business relationship.