I awoke on Monday with the sense of fleeting confusion more commonly associated with waking up in a strange environment. Within seconds I recognized my own room, but the feeling remained, and that was fitting. I was in my own bed, but my life had itself felt like a strange environment lately. The delineation between work and non-work had grown increasingly murky over the past few weeks, and this Monday felt out of place, the weekend having offered no mental respite from the work week.
And vice versa. At the office, little by the way of database-related tasks demanded my attention, so after quickly scanning for relevant colleagues, I opened Harsha’s post to see if anyone else had contributed to the discussion.
One hundred and thirty nine people had, which I soon saw amounted to somewhere between zero and one potential leads. The thought Don’t people have better things to do with their time? surfaced even as I read each comment in full. Around half were pure filler, consisting mostly of loyal readers telling Harsha that they really, really hoped she got her pen back. Several even pledged to kick in a few dollars of their own as incentive. Fully abandoning any illusion of superiority, I started a tally and counted an additional four hundred and thirty five dollars pledged to the pen fund. I wondered if any of these people had ever donated money to worthier charities, and was delighted to see that commenter number ninety-eight had put this very question in writing. This provoked a spirited discussion, with defenders of the pen fund outnumbering its detractors by a margin of approximately two to one.
Within this clutter, a few readers had weighed in on the topic of the missing witness. One thought the woman looked like someone she’d seen the previous summer at the beach, but she’d been wearing sunglasses, so the commenter wasn’t sure about “the eye thing”. Another, from a woman who made a point of saying that she never read Harsha Gill’s columns or romance novels, said that a friend of hers thought the sketch looked uncannily like the woman on the cover of a romance novel that the friend’s sister had written. And then, near the bottom of the page, was another commenter who had been pointed to the column by a third party:
Has this woman come forward? I may know who she is, especially given the two children. The older boy is the same age and race of a child from the school where I work. I haven’t seen him in a few weeks. I will email you.
My heartbeat quickened. Harsha was online. I sent her a quick message:
me: Did you hear from the commenter @132?
She responded immediately:
Harsha: Emailing her now. She teaches kindergarten at a school near the accident. Looks promising.
me: What are you going to do?
Harsha: See if she’ll give me a name and address.
me: Sounds like the kid’s disappeared. When did she last see him?
Harsha: Mid-April. Doesn’t have an exact date but will check the school records.
Mid-April: the week of the accident, or close.
me: What are you going to do if it’s her?
Harsha: I’m not going to look for her myself. I’ve passed on the info to Raffi. He’ll do the work. He tells me only around 2% ID theft cases lead to convictions, so if he breaks this one, he’ll be a star.
Raffi: her friend at the paper, a crime reporter who probably aspired to something beyond reporting about men groping women on the C-train.
I closed the tab.
I spent the rest of the morning fussing with the interface of the seed co-op’s database. At half past noon, with most of the office having vacated for lunch, I opened a browser window to Harsha’s paper, the Calgary Trail. A search of the site didn’t turn up anyone named Raffi, but an article about the C-train groper had been published the previous Friday under the byline of a Raphael Galiano. I dialed the newspaper’s switchboard and asked for him. He picked up at once; no muzak or automated babble for reporters on deadlines.
“Hi there. My name is Kathleen Kovalevsky, and I got your name from Harsha Gill.”
I waited out a few seconds of silence. “Good for you. What can I do for you, Kathleen?”
“I hear you’re chasing a lead about a missing pen.”
“That depends. What’s it to you?”
I gritted my teeth. “I think I can help you.”
“Yeah, that’s so.” I waited a beat; he didn’t prompt me. So he was going to make me work for this. Very well. “Listen,” I said, matching his surly tone. It wasn’t hard. “Your friend Harsha claims to be looking for someone who accidentally took her pen. You’re planning to talk to a kindergarten teacher who might have seen your ID thief’s kid, but not for weeks – specifically, not since the pen went missing. Now, you’ve obviously got better things to do than chase down a pen, and you don’t strike me as an idiot, so I assume you know the pen story’s bullshit. How am I doing so far?”
There was silence over the line for a full thirty seconds, and I was beginning to wonder if the connection had been severed. But then he chuckled. “Not bad.” His voice had softened. “How do you know all this?”
“I was the other driver.”
“All right then.” The edge was back. “Why are you calling me?”
“I’m calling you because the teacher’s going to show you a picture of the kid. And possibly of the mom. And I’m the only one who saw either of them.”
“You and Harsha. I know. Teacher’s going to send me pictures and names, and Har’ll tell me if it’s them.”
“No, listen to me. Harsha didn’t see shit.”
“Whoa, whoa.” There was a charged silence as Raffi tried to assimilate this information. “Harsha told me that it wasn’t her pen that was taken, it was her purse. With all her credit cards and ID. She must have seen the thief.”
“Harsha told you her purse was taken at the car accident?”
“Yeah. You’re saying it wasn’t?”
“If that’s what happened, didn’t you wonder why Harsha didn’t just say so in her column? Let her readers play cop. Or – ” I had a sudden suspicion, and a few seconds of frantic Googling confirmed it – “or why she wrote about the stolen purse in her column last year?”
I heard clicking in the background – probably Raffi reproducing my search – and then I heard him laugh, a dark cackle that scraped my eardrum. I smiled in spite of myself. “You got me,” he said simply. A few more seconds passed before he continued: “But a story’s a story and Har’s smart enough to know that you can’t afford to burn bridges in this line of work. So I figure she didn’t. So. What part’s true?”
I spoke slowly and deliberately. “There was a car accident in which I was involved. I filed a police report that I’m sure you can verify. A second police report will tell you that Harsha Gill was the other driver. The woman we’re looking for was using her identity.”
“I saw the thief and kids, and Harsha didn’t.”
“You mean she didn’t get a good look.”
I weighed my next few words carefully. “I mean you can’t trust her account of things.”
“The hell are you talking about?”
“Listen, here’s what you need to know: you’re searching for someone who was using Harsha Gill’s identity. You’re going to talk to a witness who’ll show you a picture that might be of the woman’s kid, but I’m the only person who would know one way or the other. I want to go with you to talk to the kid’s teacher.”
This time Raffi’s response was quick. “I wasn’t planning on seeing her.”
“Then give me her name.”
“Listen, Raffi,” I said, surprising myself with my conviction. “You have three options. One, you put me in touch with the teacher. Two, we do this as a team. Or three: you go solo and end with names and pictures that no one’s going to help you with, Harsha included.”
I heard his breathing over the line, and when he finally spoke, I realized I’d been holding my breath. “Give me your number. I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”
I rattled off my cell number, set my phone on vibrate, and puttered around aimlessly on the computer until my phone buzzed.
“All right,” he greeted me. “Called the police station, they say you’re legit. Called Harsha, who –” at this he laughed – “You’re lucky you’re not in the same city as her right now. Called the teacher, who can meet any day after school this week. How’s tomorrow afternoon?”
“Yes in Calgary.” The contempt was back. “Carol Patterson, Abbeydale Primary, three-fifteen. You have to sign in at the principal’s office, and she’ll meet us there.”
“Great,” I said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” But by then, he had already hung up.