A Carlo Kostner Mystery
: Chapter Three :
IT MAY NOT be in the cards to finish this before moving on to a safer location. When I arrived – it feels like weeks ago but has actually been only days – Lucas said I could stay as long as necessary. But if someone wants to find me, it won’t take forever to figure out that I might call on an old friend, admittedly one with whom I had a very public falling out years ago.
The association goes back even longer, more than thirty years, to when the three of us – Gene Montoya, Lucas Vega and yours truly – sometimes got stoned together, and, to a certain extent, shared an Aquarian dream. So did my first wife Miranda, a Native American princess and certified wacko, as well as the rest of the Coyote clan. But Gene was on a different road even then, a harder political track rather than our countercultural yellow brick road.
Lucas, being older and the one with real money, had the strongest sense of how he wanted to deal with the world. On his own terms.
“We are at the center of the universe,” he proclaimed, then quickly stipulated, “Don’t laugh. What I mean is that our actions will spiral out and change everything.”
In Lucas’ case the argument could be made that it wasn’t just bluster; his work was having a real world impact. The creator of a unique, organic architectural school that built on the philosophy of Louis Kahn – “to create a presence, consult nature,” he would say – Lucas Vega had fused design with ecology and attracted students to a remote sub-alpine workshop. By the time we met in the mid-seventies, just after I finished college, he was starting the next phase of his journey – visionary eccentric. Lucas was building an intentional community in the Southwest while promoting a radical agenda, a non-mechanistic vision of what it means to be part of a living whole.
“We are a body of humanity embedded in our living parent planet,” he said. I was always a sucker for great rhetoric and a Big Idea. Then again, he was right.
The pitch was a bit abstract for Gene, even when he was high. Which wasn’t all that often. Speaking of drugs, it offended me, reading a GQ interview after the announcement of Gene’s presidential run, that he now claimed to be “the only person who didn’t get high during the hippie era.” It was an obvious attempt to erase his past and any association with the counterculture.
The remark was so Clintonesque that I couldn’t avoid the conclusion that he actually thought he could win the presidency. Very sad, considering how things worked out.
The day we caught up at his campaign office I was feeling a bit nostalgic. Maybe it was because, on the way over, I had stopped at Lafayette Park to hear an anti-war presser and was somehow reminded of our original connection, the days when we were one for all and all for fighting elites.
Gene was getting closer by the day to the center of national power, and I was taking the reins of a media group with the potential to reach millions. So, maybe Lucas had it right, I thought. Our actions had spiraled out, and brought us here, and now presented the possibility of changing society.
Spokesmen for Veterans against the War, Grassroots America, and Act Now to End War and Racism – widely known as the Progressive Coalition – were talking about the failure of our latest imperial adventure, the domestic repression it had spawned, and, specifically, $40,000 in illegal postering fines. In the process, they decided to demonstrate the proper way to put up posters in a public place. Before they got far, the National Park Service sent in mounted police and a SWAT team to stop the demonstration and arrest the organizers.
As he was dragged away, the PC spokesperson shouted, “Now using wheat paste to put up posters is against the law. They’re criminalizing dissent!"
When I talked with Gene, the protest – and particularly the over-the-top response – was still on my mind. But Gene had no apparent interest in the travails of the anti-war movement. “It’s a sideshow,” he concluded dismissively. “Sure, I’m against the war. But you won’t change foreign policy or our role in the world with wheat paste.”
He looked like a candidate now – ramrod straight, perfect skin, immaculate suit, custom haircut – a very long way from his old self, a rumpled rebel with no fashion sense. Still, one of the first things I noticed on entering the office was his smile, broad yet not convincing, as if there was something going on just below the surface. Whatever it was, in our salad days he never would have bothered to hide it. Only the message was important then, that and The Movement. Any surrender to Form, any sort of slickness, was artificial, inherently bourgeois.
The first time we met we argued over precisely that point. My own view was that how you presented yourself, in other words the package, often determined whether people would even hear your message. Dark and defiant, with shaggy hair, worn out sneakers and torn jeans that road low on his hips, Gene dismissed the idea with a withering contempt.
This was 1974, when Nixon was only months from resigning, and a group of us were invited to a meeting of students, campus leaders about to graduate from colleges and universities in California. The common thread was an interest in radically changing politics and the media. Of all the participants, convened by Wild Bill Masterson, a one-eyed independent filmmaker who had managed to sell most of us on his dream of establishing a new media empire in northern New Mexico, Gene seemed the least likely prospect. He was studying journalism but felt mostly contempt for its practitioners. His true obsession was monopoly control by huge corporations, a critique that sounded a bit too simple to me and hardly explained what to do about it.
But Wild Bill had something Gene wanted – people willing to buy into his vision, and Gene had something Bill needed – knowledge of the local terrain and plenty of contacts. He even had a site in mind for the project – a ghost town near Taos.
“You want to start an empire in a ghost town?” I was incredulous. “Does it even have electricity?”
Gene didn’t hesitate to pounce. “That’s a racist statement. But what really bothers me is how uninformed you are for someone from one of the best schools in the country. It may be the boondocks for someone living in La-La Land, but there’s something going on there that isn’t happening in the rest of the country.”
“A people’s movement, amigo, a challenge to everything that’s wrong with the country.”
“In a ghost town?”
Bill tried to intercede. “Not there, Carlo, but in the general area. It’s being led by farmers and locals fighting a huge construction project.”
Gene finished the thought. “The Indian Camp Dam,” he explained. “It’s being pushed by a group of corporate fascists who operate through a front group, the Rancho del Rio Conservancy District. Stopping the dam, that's my priority.”
It was the same way he sounded that day in his campaign office, spouting off about PIA and the other private military interests that were manipulating foreign affairs at the behest of corporate conspirators. As always, absolutely convinced about the righteousness of his stand, as well as the inevitability of victory in whatever struggle he took on. Yet blind to unintended consequences. This time he had seriously miscalculated.
As any investigative journalist ought to know, a good theory explains the available facts and cannot easily be contradicted. That’s why I was immediately skeptical about the announcement that my old friend Gene had committed suicide by poisoning himself with dioxin. The same toxin used on Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian President who was leading his country's opposition at the time of his exposure and discovered 1,000 times the normal amount of dioxin in his blood. Although his face was disfigured with chloracne Yushchenko survived and eventually became president anyway.
The amount ingested by Gene wasn't publicly revealed but it had to be considerably more.
Even harder to accept was that he ended his own life in the midst of a last-minute surge toward the presidency, and decided to do it with a chemical compound more likely to cause cancer, diabetes or long-term damage to the immune system. In other words, he couldn’t even be certain it would work.
The theory made no sense, as opposed to the idea that he was targeted, at the very least to be brought low by an attack that would prevent him from appearing in public during the rest of the campaign.
As for why, that was the easy part: he had become a threat to the wrong people.
Nevertheless, within 24 hours discussion of a possible assassination, accidental or otherwise, was ruled out and suicide became the consensus story, endlessly echoed on major media outlets, along with the suggestion that he had struggled with episodes of deep depression for many years. I found it about as convincing as the official story about the 9/11 attacks.
Whatever you think about that, my point is that the official line didn't adequately explain all the available facts and was, to say the least, open to interpretation and challenge. Yet not even the Rose group’s talking heads wanted to go there.
Lucas didn’t reject my analysis. But he was worried about my state of mind. I had arrived at his studio close to hysterics, more out of it than he had ever seen me, even after my break up with Miranda. Then I was young and overwrought, disillusioned about a failed marriage and a pointless job. This time I was a supposedly well-balanced, middle-aged and responsible executive. Yet I believed that some latter-day illuminati wanted me dead.
He listened patiently as I recapped the last few days, starting with Gene’s call shortly before he died, excited about his prospects for winning the race and eager to discuss his decision to publicly call for a halt to private military contracts. The issue was catching fire and the timing looked right, Gene said. The next day he was gone.
The day after that, as the first coat of whitewash was being applied to his untimely demise, I had to fly to Texas for the annual Rose Board of Directors meeting. That night I stopped at KLAP to appear on Against the Grain, a weekly show, and talked about my departed friend.
Just before going on the air, my mobile phone rang. The display showed a restricted number so I ignored it. During the interview I mentioned that Gene and I had talked at times, without saying how recently, and mentioned his concern about mercenary armies - without revealing his latest plan.
As I left the studio, I turned the phone back on to check for messages. The first voice, officious, cryptic, said that the Secret Service was sending a car and wanted to interview me as soon as possible. I never heard the next message. It was drowned out by the explosion, the sound of shattering glass and the screams of terrified volunteers.
“You think the two are connected,” asked Lucas after I finally reached his studio in a panic, “Gene’s death, the bombing at the station?”
“Are you high? He was going after guys with the best death squads in the world, not to mention the ability to monitor calls and figure out where we are. And I may be the last person who talked to him. Definitely not a coincidence.”
"So, are we safe here?"
To be continued (when I know more..)
Sounds from the street