Sunday, December 7, 2014


Samuel Schvantz (not his real name), dataveillant, was running late with the phone numbers I had ordered i.e. all calls dialed from Lara’s Santa Fe telephone over a ninety-day period.  

Schvantzy blamed it on the "vendor"—but my spook grapevine reported that Schvantz had been spreading himself thin on too many assignments.

"You told me ten business days," I said.  "It's been fourteen.”

I phoned Clair to report the problem.  "What do you think?"

"I think I'll call Schvantz and bawl him out."

Schvantz faxed the numbers late that afternoon. 

Lara’s most dialed number—eleven calls—was to Richardson, Texas.

"That's where she got her cat," said Clair, recalling that the countess had mentioned Texas.  "But I'll call it for a positive ID."  Clair dialed.  "Is this the cathouse?" 

Yes, it was.  Clair hung up.

The countess requested photographs of the Buddhist flags at Lara’s house.  I assigned this task to Eliza.  

Posing as a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal, Eliza circled Circle Drive, snapped a roll of film and sent me eight large prints.

Satisfied with Eliza's performance, I commissioned her to research, investigate and draft a report on Tibetan Buddhists in Santa Fe.

Meantime, I searched the whereabouts of Baron von Biggleswurm and connected with him for the first time in four months.  He was in Germany, had just buried his mother.  

"It was a big hassle," he said of his mother's death.  "We had to suffer.  She loved me very much," he added, before jumping into the really big news:  an impending concert at Biggleswurm Castle.  

The baron had sold another chunk of his family's grounds to bring the Moscow Philharmonic to Biggleswurm so he could wave his baton at them.  

"The foreign minister of Russia is coming, and the foreign minister of Germany," he babbled, "and also the Queen of Spain."  He paused to take a breath.  "It will be good for my book, yaa?"

I traveled to Europe on a family vacation—twelve days in Monaco, six days in London—so I dropped by our client’s villa to present my collection of reports and photographs. 

The countess appeared in her courtyard, filled with color and perfume.  

"You've out-done yourself," I said, looking around.  "The grounds are more beautiful than ever."

"You think?"  She smiled, led me into her villa and sat beside me her on the sofa overlooking the garden.  "So," she said.  "Tell me."

I opened a manila file folder.  "First, your grandson.  He is a happy, very healthy, well balanced fellow," I read the neatly typed page.  "He is said to be, and I quote, 'A joy to have around.'  No obvious trouble spots."

If this was what the countess wanted to hear, she did not let on.  Indeed, I already suspected it would displease her.  How could the boy be happy and healthy in Santa Fe, New Mexico, without his grandmother around to direct the program?

I moved on to the next point.  "This year your grandson has become interested in drama..."

The countess gasped.  "Drama?  Why drama?”

I shrugged, continued on.  "He is good at drama, one source reports, and makes everyone laugh."

"Ha!"  This was sarcasm.  "He makes everyone laugh?  This is a disaster."  

I prattled on, but the countess was no longer attuned.  She'd gotten stuck on drama.

Next, I showed the countess photographs of Buddhist prayer flags on her daughter's property.

"Ah, so you see, it's true," she said.

"Santa Fe has become a hub for Tibetan-Buddhist activity," I said.  "It hosts a growing native Tibetan community.  In 1991 there were twelve native Tibetans in Santa Fe.  Today there are over a hundred.  You see here," I presented a copy of Lara’s telephone bill.  "Your daughter is in contact with one of the main organizers."

"Oh my God."

"Let me put this into perspective," I said.  "Free Tibet is one of the most fashionable causes in the United States today.  It attracts national attention through some of Hollywood's biggest movie stars and most popular musical groups."  The countess wasn't listening, didn't care.  "Of course," I added, "we want to find out more about the Tibetan Buddhist ringleaders in Santa Fe, see if they are reputable.  And we thought we'd do a financial check to determine if your daughter is giving them money, and if so, how much.  Also, we have indications that your daughter may return to live in Santa Fe after the summer."  

The countess froze in disbelief.  Lara had been telling her mother that she and her son would return to live in Switzerland in September—and the countess was basing her whole existence on this development.  "But I've given her my apartment in Geneva," she said.  "And everything in it, including the Breugels.”

"According to our sources," I said, "Lara has re-enrolled her son for another year at his private school."

"This is a disaster," said the countess.

At one o'clock sharp, a starched servant announced lunch.  We reconvened on the patio.  A white-gloved servant appeared with scrumptious pasta followed by grilled dourade, a local fish, garnished with small potatoes, succulent vegetables, and a green salad with avocado and lightly seasoned olive oil.  

In keeping with our client’s custom, we recommenced serious talk over strong coffee, by which time she could percolate from a caffeine infusion.  "Does my daughter pay tax in America?" she asked, affecting nonchalance.

This was purely rhetorical, for we both already knew that a) her daughter was a U.S. citizen from birth and b) that her daughter declared only a tiny fraction of her unearned income on the federal income tax return she filed.

"Uh, not as much as she's supposed to," I said.

"And why is that?" snapped the countess.

Because The Gray Fiduciary wires her living expenses to the United States and hides the rest."

"Aha!  But she must pay her taxes," said the countess.  "If she chooses to live in America, she must pay her tax, no?"

"Uh, you're not thinking of getting the IRS after her?" I said.

"She thinks she can get away with anything," the countess snarled.  "She must be taught a lesson."

"No, no, no, no, no," I said.  "If you tip off the IRS, you have no control over what happens next.  Because of your daughter's wealthy status, the IRS could decide to make it a criminal investigation.  They do that with high-profile cases to spook everyone else into paying their taxes.  Your daughter could even end up going to jail.  You don't want that."

The countess did not answer immediately.  "Maybe," she finally said, "my daughter should go to jail."

I could almost hear our client’s brain cells synapsing.  If her daughter went to jail custody of her grandson would be up for grabs.  One thing was certain:  The boy would not major in drama.

"We must think about this," she said.  "Are you here long?"

"Another week."

"So we can meet again?"

"Of course.  Let me take you out to the restaurant of your choice."

"I prefer here," said the countess.  "It is more private.  We'll have a nice risotto."

Five thousand miles away, in the middle of Nowheresville, Wyoming, Lara and her son began a summer vacation at their favorite dude ranch.  Several hours after their arrival, Eliza, my free-spirited insertion agent arrived at the ranch.  Her assignment was to monitor the situation and, if possible, befriend Lara.

The first indication that this operation was going well came from Gordon in Santa Fe.  "Annie Oakley's okay," he said.  "The weather is glorious up there."  This meant Eliza had engaged her prey.  Another message, next day, confirmed that Annie Oakley had made fast friends with Lara: they were shopping and going to the movies together.
I reached Eliza minutes after she returned home at one o’clock in the morning. 

"I got out of the car at the ranch and there she was, right behind me," said Eliza, "asking if I needed any help with my bags."

"And you became friends?"

"Absolutely.  She's a wonderful, beautiful person, and so is her son.  You can tell her mother she should be very proud of them."

Yeah, right.  Eliza did not know the countess.  "You must be tired," I said.  We agreed to speak twelve hours hence, after Eliza had a chance to sleep and organize her notes.  

“Uh…” said Eliza.


"I really like her."  She paused.  "Is that a problem?"  Clearly, Eliza struggled with her duplicity.

"Not at all," I said.  "It's great that you genuinely like her.  Remember, we only want the best for Lara and her son."  I meant this.  "Did you get a sense that she has many friends?"

"I get a sense that she doesn't."

"Do you think that if you cultivate this relationship you could become her new best friend?"

"I already am."

It was almost spooky how quickly the normally aloof Lara had taken to Eliza.  I had mixed my chemicals well  (or so I thought).  The formula behind this chemistry was simple:  Eliza was everything Lara wished to be—adventurous, high-spirited, an extrovert.  And the diffident, lonely, introverted Lara was everything Eliza wished to be: incredibly rich.

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