CASE 2: not a good day for peter griffiths
My stomach, a never-failing barometer of potential trouble, tightened. Sitting in Saul Weir’s cluttered office, I considered the job he wanted me to take. Saul is Chief of Claims for Canada Mutual Insurance Company, and a good client. Today, his office resembled a disaster zone. File folders stacked on top of each other covered most of his desktop, and between the stacks, were visible at least two mugs. They each contained approximately a quarter inch of fuzzy coffee and looked as if they might be growing penicillin. A couple of minutes ago, he’d offered me a cold case. I have a history with cold cases and they aren’t my favorite. I’m Baker Somerset, age thirty-one, Ottawa’s only female private investigator, and owner of Case Closed Investigations.
“That’s it? Just find out if someone who went missing from one of the most secure buildings in Ottawa—seven years ago no less—is dead or alive? Geez, piece of cake, Saul.”
He leaned forward at his desk and moved papers around, looking for something. Only an archeologist could find anything in that mess.
“Somerset, please don’t bust my balls about this.”
He swiveled in his chair in order to pull a file folder out of a side drawer, bashed he knee on the edge of the desk, and swore. He slammed the drawer shut and a potted plant fell off the edge of the desk. “Nuts,” he muttered. Fortunately, not much dirt had escaped the pot. He bent over to pick it up with his right hand, while he waved a file folder up in the air with his left.
I stood and grabbed the file before it became airborne, as he said, “Here’s a copy of our file. Ms. Griffiths’ lawyer, Colin Burgess, contacted us earlier this month. He’ll file papers, on the second of July, requesting her brother be declared legally dead. You have three weeks.”
He swiveled his chair again and put the potted plant on the windowsill behind his desk. Then he turned and looked at me. “We need to have some idea if this is a legitimate claim. Griffiths took out a five-million-dollar policy two years before he disappeared. We need to know if he’s still alive.”
I’d never seen Saul so agitated. He was like a bear with a sore head today.
He went on. “Griffith’s sister’s probably a delightful lady. Even so, I have to tell you, I’d enjoy complicating Burgess’ life.”
“Sounds like a thorny subject, Saul. What gives?”
“Nothing, really. He’s a partner in one of the high-profile firms in town, and he’s the sort that gives lawyers a bad reputation. We’ve dealt with him before. I simply don’t like him.”
I’ve worked for Canada Mutual several times. Their cases tend to be quite straightforward, and they pay their bill on time, which keeps me in coffee money. My resolve began to weaken; Saul isn’t just a client, he’s practically a friend.
I paged through the skimpy file. “Five mil’s a pretty hefty policy for a law student to be carrying, Saul.”
As he spoke, his eyes, normally full of mischief like a young boy’s, drew up into a tight squint and his forehead wrinkled right up to his balding head. “Our Underwriting Department had the same concern, so I questioned the agent. Legitimate family circumstances, his mother’s illness for one thing, warranted the amount and we approved the policy. Now, however, I’m worried.”
“What other factors made you grant the policy?”
“Peter’s mother is ill, and his sister is unmarried. They own the flat, and Peter wanted to make sure the mortgage could be paid off, and enough money set aside for taxes in the future. And he wanted to make sure his sister didn’t have to worry about money. He didn’t want her to go into a marriage because she couldn’t support herself. Believe me, we looked long and hard before writing the policy.”
My fingers ran across the rough upholstered arm of the chair as I considered the potential problems. A trail can become stone-cold in seven years. Witnesses move. Memories fade. And cold cases always seem to have a hidden booby trap. I looked at his worried face, and caved.
“I’ll take this on because I hate to see you in a bind. Remember what I said on the phone. I can’t promise to find anything definite. My daily rate is now a hundred-per-hour plus expenses, your retainer can act as an advance on the expenses. If you’re okay with those provisos, I’ll email a contract to you this afternoon.”
Some of the scowl lines eased and a smile slowly spread across his face. “I’ll stamp ‘Saul’s Seal of Approval’ all over it and get it right back to you.”
My stomach sent more warning signals. The voice inside my head said, What have I gotten myself into this time?
Each of these little bits of information was like a jigsaw puzzle piece. If I could find enough of them, they might fit into a complete picture. Blackmail meant money. Probably a constant stream of it. I rang Keys and said I needed help.
Her laughter bubbled over. “Here we are, three days into the case. I was wondering when I’d be called to duty. What shall I look for this time? The only thing is…I hope it’s not information about the Chagossian file. Not that it would stop me, but I casually mentioned Diego Garcia to the Commissioner, trying to glean some inside background. He made it clear I shouldn’t stir the pot on that issue. The island seems to be a sensitive topic in some quarters. The two-year window for finalizing the renewal of the lease, for another fifty years, is up at the end of this year, and a big kerfuffle is going on in London about the CIA using the base as a ‘black site’ for holding terrorist suspects with the British government’s knowledge. They don’t want the boat rocked right now.”
“Interesting. No, I’m not calling about the island. You’ll live to hack for Queen and Country another day. Right now, I need bank account information.”
I gave her Elizabeth Vanier’s SIN. “She could be a blackmailer or a victim and there’s no way to discern if anyone else might be involved. Why play favourites? Add Peter, Julia, Tomlinson, and Colin Burgess, the lawyer to the list. Crap. Once again, it boils down to ‘follow the money.’ Altogether, a task to challenge even the greatest geek.”
“Sucking-up won’t get you the results any faster,” she said. “Banks are surprisingly hard to hack into, especially if you don’t want them to know you’ve been there.”
“So, I’ll have the results tomorrow morning, then?”
I thought she’d choke from laughing.