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Killing Griffin
By Anne Bernays

Killing GriffinBy Anne Bernays

 

Photo: Anne Bernays

 

 

Excerpt from Killing Griffin, chapter one.

 

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

— Ernest Hemingway

 

Union Square is to Somerville what Harvard Square is to Cambridge, that is, its very heart. There all similarities end. But that’s not quite accurate: there’s no store that sells underwear in either place. For an idea of the international character of  Somerville,  all you have to do is look at the range of places where you can sample the international cuisine — such as it is — of Portugal, Mexico, Peru, India, China, Africa, Korea, Ireland (for booze) — all within a block or two of each other. Assorted odors from their kitchens — chicken, beef, shrimp, vegetables, sauces like fenugreek, coriander, star anise — mix and spread benignly over the landscape.

Union Square, my home, is on the seedy side.  Not so much garbage-strewn, as derelict, as if most of its inhabitants had left for a better place. Most of the folks you see walking around its compact center are not in a hurry. The optimistically named “Reliable Market” sells canned, fresh, and packaged food from Korea and Japan and does a brisk business. In Union Square, you’re likely to see guys who can’t hold a job, old women on their way back from Market Basket dragging a cart loaded with bags of food, and a very occasional mother-with-stroller. Weather permitting, five or six Sikhs wearing turbans of assorted colors — red, orange, green — sit on facing benches talking together solemnly, changing the world. Hanging above them is an invisible sign reading “Disturb at your risk.” Barristers Hall, four stories high and unoccupied, is a flatiron building painted white. It looks like a mistake and is the tallest structure in the area. My favorite establishment is Forklift Caterers not because I’ve eaten their food, but because I love their name. Close to the 1-95 overpass is the Somerville Police station, an undistinguished squat brown brick building that looks  like a gym designed by someone who barely squeaked through  architecture school — probably somebody important’s nephew.  An acupuncture outfit rents part of the top floor.

I’m Nancy Wolfe. I’m 49. I have a daughter, Lilly, just out of college and trying to “find herself.” Sometimes she stays with me in my spare room on a fold-out bed. We get along okay except for times when we don’t. I think she blames me for her aimlessness and maybe she’s right. I’m divorced from her father, a scamp named Donald. I’m a detective in the Somerville Police Department — recently promoted to the job, and the only female detective in the precinct. I could write a lot about gender, but I don’t want to get started on that right now; I have more urgent things on my mind.

How did I end up here? My parents, Joanne and Martin — he worked in middle management for the New England Candy Company — made sure I got into Boston Latin by a series of old-world carrot and stick strategies throughout my childhood. At Boston Latin I received an A-plus education, propelling me to Boston University, where I was also educated up to the ears. I graduated with a Magna in Government and a minor in English — which I liked better than Government, but there are few jobs to be had in Wordsworth and Billy Collins, so I did the more practical thing and headed towards the Massachusetts Police Academy. My father, a secular Jew, was stunned when I told him I wanted to go into law enforcement.  I know what he was thinking —  “A Jewish lady policeman! Oy.” My mother also. “So you want to handcuff some big lunk?” Dad said. “That’s not the part of it that appeals to me,” I told him. It was more a question of finding out why people did bad, often unspeakable things to each other.  I didn’t want to be a lawyer and I certainly didn’t want to be a shrink — stupefying. There may have been a little contrariness in the mix as well; no one in our family had entered a career where you had to wear a uniform except when they were drafted into the Army. Dad died just before I received my latest promotion.

One Friday last November, I was given a new case by my supervisor, Jeff Ryan. Captain Jeffrey Ryan. I was sitting at my desk, going over some documents that concerned an infant death — either from SIDS or someone’s murderous hand. Nine out of ten such cases are Sudden Infant Death Syndrome — excruciatingly sad, but often the result of parents not following life-saving suggestions. This was when Jeff Ryan buzzed my phone and asked me if I had a minute. That’s his way of saying “get your ass in here now.” I walked across the so-called bull pen to his office. He has two windows (I have none). I could see Monro Brakes and Mufflers — perpetually unpatronized — beyond his head. There was no small talk with Jake. “You’re always bitching that I don’t give you anything you can sink your pretty teeth into,” he said. “Well here’s something you might not thank me for.” He picked up a manila folder and waggled it in front of me.  “It’s yours now. Don’t screw up, please,” he said. “And oh, I’ve asked Harry to help you. That’s it.”

Harry Baxter was a hot-shot junior member of the department. I didn’t know exactly how old but under thirty anyway. He was a graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice (which he managed to bring up as often as possible), and okay except he shot his mouth off a little too often for my taste.

I went back to my desk, sat down to look at the folder. Scrawled in magic marker was the name Professor Emeric Griffin.

I took a deep, restorative breath and opened the folder. There were only a few pages in it; these dealt with where his body was found — in “Chickendishy” in the heart of Union Square, less than half a mile from where I was sitting. One of the employees there had noticed this middle-aged man sitting at a table by the window. Watched him stagger to the men’s room, heard a thudding noise from within, crashed open the door and found the Professor slumped inelegantly on the floor. Called the police who called the EMTs who removed the body.  Seemed almost balletic in its clarity. Cause of death: initially thought to be a heart attack, but a quickie autopsy revealed that it was a poison (as yet to be identified) that shut down his lungs and dispatched him to the netherworld.  There was a photo of Griffin. Puffy  face,  mouth more or less a straight line, a small, neatly trimmed pepper-and-salt beard, high brow, thinning gray hair, penetrating eyes. The last page had some surprising words on it. While the rest of the file was printed, this was hand-written: “son-of-a-bitch;” “narcissist;” “bully;” “cruel;” “infantile;” “arrogant;” “ass-hole;” “off his trolley;” “doesn’t pay his bills.”  I was surprised by the presence of these loaded words in this official file, so I walked back to Jake’s office and sat down, facing him across his desk, and asked him about the last page.

“Funny you should ask,” he said. “There’s a first time for everything I guess. So these were the exact words used by folks who phoned me and refused to leave their names. I despise people who are too chicken to leave their names.  A couple of the callers said they were his friends. Did you read his obit?”

I admitted that I hadn’t. “I’ll look it up on line,” I said.

“I think we’re going to find we have quite a few suspects here. Do you think you can handle it?”

“Me and Boy Wonder? Absolutely.” I wasn’t as confident as I sounded. Whatever an open and shut case was, this didn’t seem to be it. After he said “That’s it,” I went back to my desk and opened my MacBook Pro, googled “Emeric Griffin Obit,” and got the Boston Globe version. High points: He was born 59 years earlier in Syracuse, attended public schools there until he went to a nearby prep school. Then on to New York State University’s Albany campus and finally, the last stop on his educational journey, Cornell’s graduate school of business. He’d been on the faculty at Harvard for over twenty years as a full professor in the Business School, the position he occupied when he met his maker.  The only negative words in the obit were “controversial,”  “outlier,” “exacting.”  Many folks would consider these a plus. A detective learns to read between the lines.

What else did I learn? That Griffin had been married twice before he married his present wife, an ex-model from Croatia named Hypernia, nineteen years his junior. That Hypernia’s father had made a mint in bottled Croatian water; he was the king of Croatian bottled water. That he had four children by various wives, and that he had written two books, one of which was among the first of its kind, bringing to the surface the unconscious motives of the American consumer. Economics plus psychology: not a gimmick but a possible gold mine for corporate America. Griffin’s first book, which might have been a huge yawn, unexpectedly thrust Griffin into the limelight of television. He was considered THE Expert on the subject of discretionary spending and as such, the man to go to when the economy seemed fragile and folks needed reassurance. How do I know this?  I just do. Trust me to get it right.

Griffin lived with his third wife in Cambridge, a few blocks south of Porter Square, a solid upper class area ending in a cul-de-sac within walking distance of Harvard Square. I knew the street. I can’t afford to live in Cambridge.

There was nothing that would raise red flags in Griffin’s death notice if you hadn’t known that his life ended just inside the men’s bathroom in Chickendishy. And even if you had known, you wouldn’t be able to deduce very much.

I was staring into dusty space, cogitating, when Harry, the Boy Wonder, stopped next to my desk late in the afternoon. He’d been briefed by Captain Ryan. He tried to act cool, but I could see he was excited by the assignment. Ryan had told him to “find out who did it. And make it snappy. This dude had friends in the legislature.”  Everybody was saying dude. Except me; you won’t catch me calling anyone “dude.” Harry said, “What was a Harvard prof doing in a dump like Chickendishy? The food’s gross.”

“Maybe he liked his food greasy,” I said.  I got up and grabbed my next-to-warmest parka off a hook on the wall. “Tomorrow’s Saturday,” I told him. ”See you Monday. Why don’t you read this guy’s obit over the weekend? And you might want to Google him too.”

“You think I’m stupid? I was planning on doing that,” Harry said.

*****

My mother used to tell me that I would be doing myself a favor if I let go of things more easily. But I couldn’t; this habit was in my bones, I guess I sometimes make it hard on other people — like my ex, Dan for instance. During the weekend — I spent a good deal of it with my boyfriend Alec, who’s a tech genius working at a startup in Kendall Square.  I told Alec about the case. He said he’d heard of the professor. Not that much, he told me, but he did use the word “slimy.” I cooked us a curried chicken dish that I’d found online and we watched “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Alec stayed over. I like when he does that. He wants to marry me but I’m skeptical:  “Why can’t we keep it like it is?” Besides, I don’t see the point of getting married unless you both want children. Alec has a kid who lives with his ex in Phoenix. He almost never gets to see him.

*****

I was at my desk before nine on Monday morning. The place was buzzing. There had been a three-car smash-up on the ramp leaving I-95 and the guys who take care of such things were busy talking to witnesses.

Harry had beat me into the office. “Ready to get cracking,” he said. “Bushy-tailed.”

“We’re going to speak to the wife,” I told him. “I mean widow. Please, do me a favor and let me do most of the talking. We want to avoid seeming to be confrontational. They clam up when you’re confrontational.”

“I know that,” he said. He was wearing pressed jeans and a brown faux suede jacket.

“She lives in Cambridge,” I told him. “There’s a son, thirteen, Earl.”

The house where Griffin had lived was in the posh side of Cambridge, which made me think someone other than the corpse had money. These places went for the low millions and required a large hunk of money to keep the surrounding grass regularly cut, the plants trimmed and watered, the paths weeded and the tree roots fed.  Mrs. Griffin answered the door herself. She was wearing black pants, tight around the calves, a heavy gray hand-knit cardigan sweater, probably from Sweden, and black suede ballet flats. You couldn’t fault her taste, either in the clothes themselves or in what they were meant to represent. She knew what she doing. “Please come in, she said, after I’d identified myself and Harry. “I’m afraid the place is messy — you understand…..” She pulled out a handkerchief and wiped a delicate crescent under each eye. She had the trace of a Baltic accent, sweetish and soft. Her light brown hair dripped over her shoulders like a high-schooler’s. Her nails were long and rounded at the tip, tinted a discreet rose.

We followed her down three shallow steps into a living room. The room was furnished like a Miami Beach hotel — curves galore, fringe everywhere, silver and golden sparkles, low, deep chairs and couches, and a bar in one corner covered with bottles filled with expensive contents. The rococo temperament, the visual equivalent of whoop-de-doo and definitely not your ordinary Cambridge house.  Hypernia sat herself down on a loveseat, her legs velcroed together. Harry and I sat opposite her in two deep velvet armchairs. “I don’t know what I can tell you,” she said. She took out her handkerchief again. “I’m devastated,” she purred. “I’m in shock.” She paused and tilted her chin. “I sent Earl to school. I didn’t see any reason to keep him home. He’s devastated. He and his father were very close.”

I nodded sympathetically and told her I had to ask some questions that might seem harsh, but that we had to find out as much as possible about her husband so that we could nail his killer.  “I hope you understand.”

Hypernia said, “Of course.” At that moment a thirtyish woman who looked a lot like Hypernia, came down the three stairs and into the living room. Without looking to see who it was, Hypernia, said, “This is my sister Beata. She’s staying with me for a while.” Beata said, “Hi,” sat down, clasped her hands together and began to stroke her legs up and down, up and down. I glanced at Harry who smirked at me. He had a hell of a lot to learn about presentation of self.  Stuff that John Jay had failed to include in its curriculum.

I asked the usual questions: did the professor have enemies?

Had anything unusual happened in the last few months? Did he owe a lot of money? Had her husband seemed distracted lately? I put several more questions to her that led exactly nowhere. Frankly, I hadn’t expected much of anything from the widow. “Would she say they had a strong marriage?” At this, Beata let out a loud “whoop.” The sound created by this lone word floated around above our heads, carrying with it spores of anger and delight. “Show her!” Beata told Hypernia, who shot her sister a bullet-in-the-brain look. Beata lowered her head.

“Show me what?” I said.

“I made a mistake,” Beata said. “It is not necessary.”

I decided to go right on as if nothing had happened, sure that this was not the time and place to be shown whatever it was that the sisters were concerned about. Hypernia offered us “coffee? Or perhaps some tea?” I said no thank you. I thought Harry was about to accept the offer when I stopped him by telling Hypernia that we wouldn’t be taking up much more of her time — for now. “We might want to have you come down to the station and make a statement. “I pulled out my wallet and handed her my card. She accepted it as if it was the first one she had ever seen.

Beata said, “How is it that if you’re a policeman you do not wear a uniform?”

Harry said, “We’re above that pay scale.” I’m not sure they heard him.

 

Editor’s Note:  Anne Bernays is a novelist (including Professor Romeo and Growing Up Rich) and co-author, with her husband, Justin Kaplan, of Back Then: Two Lives in 1950s New York. Her articles, book reviews and essays have appeared in such major publications as the New York Times, Sports Illustrated and The Nation. A long-time teacher of writing, Bernays currently teaches at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation.  In Miami, Bernays has presented at the Miami Book Fair and at Books & Books.