I didn’t have the energy to come up with a lie that would result in Stratitech funding a third Calgary trip, so I instead called in sick the next day. I laid the foundation by acting queasy and unfocused for the rest of the afternoon, apparently convincingly enough that Sanjay, unsolicited, suggested I take a day off. I didn`t even try to argue. He told me to take care of myself, and I felt vaguely guilty about the deception, but then he added, “Things are a bit quiet around here these days, anyway.”
At home, anticipating the sorts of glitches that had afflicted my last two trips east, I booked an early flight to Calgary, and left the return trip open. I was pessimistic enough to look up hotels in the area, and stuffed a pair of pyjamas and a clean pair of underwear into my backpack. I knew better than to assume I’d be returning the same day.
The next morning, I woke before my alarm, grabbed my handbag, and set out for the airport.
The Vancouver side of my trip went smoothly: a fast and impersonal ride to the terminal on the Canada Line, followed by an easy, baggage-free check-in. My plane landed just before noon; by twelve-thirty, a cab had deposited me just outside Abbeydale Primary School. I’d planned to scope out the school from an inconspicuous vantage point across the street, but that plan was quickly scrapped when I saw that the school was located in a cul-de-sac in a residential neighbourhood: a location probably selected with the very objective of preventing strangers from scoping out the school from inconspicuous vantage points across the street.
It was warm and sunny out, so I spent the couple of hours wandering the neighbourhood, finding no parks, no libraries, no coffee shops, and in fact no buildings at all that weren’t houses or gas-station-with-convenience-store units. At a quarter to three I made my way back to the building, just in time to see a dozen or so adults herd several hundred children onto yellow buses. I waded through the chaos into the quiet of the building, and installed myself in the principal’s office, where I stated my name and purpose. The receptionist nodded in recognition and pointed me to a chair; after two hours of walking around, I sat gratefully.
I hadn’t been sitting long when a wiry man with a shock of black hair entered the office, walked past me to the desk, and made an introduction much like mine. I rose, and extended my hand. “Hello, Raffi,” I said.
He turned from the desk, and stared at me for several seconds before speaking. “Kathleen.”
Behind the desk, the receptionist was on the phone with the kindergarten teacher. She signed off quickly, and directed us to Mrs. Patterson’s classroom, down the hall and to the left. It was a short and silent trip.
At the back of room 117 was a plump brown-haired fortyish woman, dressed in jeans and a blue sweater, bent over at the waist picking up blocks. As we entered, she turned around and jumped back with a start, spilling the blocks on the floor. Surprise gave way to laughter as she remembered herself. “Oh, goodness, you scared me,” she said. “Raffi and Kathleen, right?”
“That’s right,” said Raffi.
“Carol.” She turned around, went back to collecting blocks. “I’m just cleaning up here, I’ll be right with you.” She dumped the blocks in a toy box in the corner. “The beginning of the day is chaos as it is, nevermind starting without everything in order. I’d offer you a seat, but...” At this she turned to face us, and gestured apologetically at our surroundings: twenty or so chairs, none of which would support an adult’s weight. I told her we were happy to stand; Raffi gave a weak chuckle, but couldn’t hide his impatience.
A few minutes later, when the blocks, dolls, trucks, Legos, and colouring books had been returned to their homes, Carol walked over to us, ready to give us her full attention. “So. You might have seen Gary Thomas.”
Gary Thomas. “Your student,” I said.
“Ex-student,” she corrected, and then frowned. “The last time I saw him was three weeks ago. It’s not unusual for those kids to leave partway through the year, but this one just didn’t sit right with me, for a number of reasons. But all the paperwork was in order, so there was nothing I could really do. And then when Melanie – she’s the receptionist, I’d talked to her about Gary – when Melanie saw the newspaper column, I thought, maybe I was right, maybe there’s something funny going on.”
I blinked, trying to formulate a question from the teacher’s stream of consciousness. Raffi came up with one before I did: “‘Those kids,’” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You said, ‘those kids’. Which kids?”
“Oh,” said Carol, “The Indian ones.” Raffi raised his eyebrows, and she continued hurriedly: “I’m not racist, that’s just the way it is: a lot of them have family overseas, so they leave in the middle of the year, spend months at a time with them. It’s disruptive to our routine, but what can you do? Usually we get a few weeks’ notice, time to prepare the class, and we get everyone to sign a card, and we make the child’s last day here special, with cupcakes and songs.”
“But not with Gary,” I said.
“No, not with Gary. With Gary, I had no idea the family was leaving. He was always a quiet kid, but quiet, not silent. He never told me he was leaving, and neither did his parents. They were just gone.”
“When was this?” I asked.
“The last day I saw him was the Thursday.” She chewed on her lip for a moment, and then consulted a calendar on the wall. “Thursday, April twelfth.”
A week before the accident.
“On Friday, he didn’t show up. Neither of his parents phoned. We’re legally responsible for the children during the school day, so we need to follow up. We reached the father on his cell. He told us, Gary won’t be attending for the rest of the year, didn’t his mother tell us? But no, his mother never told us. The next week he finally came in and filled out the papers. That’s the other thing – usually the whole family goes together, but the father, he was still here.”
She stopped there, and I looked around the room, at the tiny chairs and tables, the pictures on the wall. “His mother,” I said finally. “You mean the woman on Harsha Gill’s blog.”
Carol nodded a few times, slowly, and didn’t raise her head back all the way to look at us. “I think so.”
“I’m sorry.” Raffi now. “You think so?”
“We came here because we’re looking for the woman on Harsha Gill’s blog,” I said. “I thought you called because you recognized her as this boy Gary’s mother.”
“I think so,” Carol repeated. “I see so many parents, and I don’t see them often, I don’t always remember who belongs to who. The children arrive and leave on the school bus. That picture looked familiar, I mean I think I’ve seen that woman before, but I couldn’t swear it was Gary’s mum. It was just a sketch. If you had a photo, I might be more certain.”
I let that sit. “You couldn’t swear,” Raffi repeated evenly.
Carol opened her mouth, a defensive O, but I cut her off before she could continue. “Do you have a picture of Gary?” I asked.
She nodded quickly, eager to make herself useful again. She walked us over to the side wall, where a collage of portraits of five-year-olds hung, each labelled with a name written in uneven block capitals. In the bottom row was a dark-skinned boy with wide brown eyes and a shy smile. “That’s Gary,” Carol said, pointing.
Raffi turned to me. “That the kid?”
I shrugged. “Could be.”
“I didn’t get a close look.”
Raffi opened his mouth to say something, but I interrupted before he could speak. “Carol, do you know if Gary had a little brother or sister?”
She chewed on her lip again. “He never mentioned one, and all I know is that he didn’t have any siblings at the school. So if so, the younger one probably wasn’t school-age yet.”
I hadn’t gotten a good look at the children in the back seat, but from what I saw, one looked to be around kindergarten age; the other, in a car seat, was younger but not an infant. There were probably hundreds of families with children that age; but how many of Indian descent, near the Calgary airport, and with parents who seemed to be hiding? The sketch of Harsha’s imposter had evoked only a vague recognition in the boy’s teacher, if that; but a teacher who had limited contact with the parents couldn’t be expected to remember all of them anyway. I thought back to my own childhood, raised by a painfully introverted father who certainly hadn’t gone out of his way to get to know my teachers. And an identity thief, more than anyone else, would fly under the radar. I thought back to the hundred and thirty eight blog comments that had been posted as of the previous morning; for all Harsha’s fans, and friends of her fans, Carol was the only reader who seemed to have anything concrete to offer.
“I think Gary is her kid,” I said to Raffi.
He nodded, and then addressed Carol: “You said you called the parents when Gary stopped coming to class.”
Carol shook her head. “Not me. Melanie. Reception chases down the parents of the absent kids: we report absences and they follow up. Usually it’s not necessary; parents know to call at the beginning of the school day if their children are going to be away. But Melanie – she said it took a while to reach Mr. Thomas on Friday when Gary didn’t show. And that he seemed annoyed that we’d called. And the same thing Monday. Melanie explained to him what I told you, that we’re responsible for the children during the school day and we need to know where they are if they’re not here. She said Mr. Thomas said, usually their mother takes care of that thing. So naturally, Melanie asked where she could reach their mother, because she’d tried calling and there was no answer. She asked, is Gary sick? Is he going to be away for a while? And Mr. Thomas got upset. Then the next day, Tuesday, Mr. Thomas called first thing in the morning, said they were taking Gary out of school. Melanie told him, you need to sign some forms. And maybe bring Gary in too, just to say goodbye to the other children.”
I finished the story for her. “He came in and signed the forms, but didn’t bring Gary.”
Carol nodded. “Like I said: it didn’t sit right with me.”
“Do you have the forms?” asked Raffi.
“Not on me, but Melanie has them in the office. They’re confidential, but Melanie’s as worried as I am, so…” She shrugged, palms up. “She tried following up, but she never was able to reach the mum, and after a few days it seemed Mr. Thomas was screening his calls, because he didn’t answer his phone either. Melanie was actually the one who pointed me to the piece in the Trail, said to me, an Indian lady with a boy around the same age as your kids, what do you think? When I saw that piece, I thought to try him again, but it looks like the phone’s been disconnected.”
None of us spoke for a few seconds, and then Carol motioned us out the door. “Come, let’s go take a look at the withdrawal forms.”
We walked back to the office, three pairs of adult footsteps echoing through an empty hallway. Outside the room, her hand on the doorknob, Carol turned to us. “The lady at the Trail, she said she’s looking for someone with her pen. But you didn’t come down here for that, did you? And you” – looking directly at me now – “you flew in here all the way from Vancouver. This isn’t about a missing pen, is it?”
Raffi turned to me, waiting for me to speak. “No,” I said, “it’s about a missing person.”
The office was empty except for the receptionist, who was staring at a computer screen with the air of someone whose commitments this late in the day were determined by only the clock on the wall. She perked up immediately when she saw us, and wasn’t surprised when Carol told her what we were looking for. She wheeled her chair over to a filing cabinet, and pulled open the middle drawer, which sagged under the weight of its contents. She removed a folder, extracted a single sheet of paper, and placed it on the counter.
Carol had seen the form before, so she stood back as Raffi and I hovered over it. It contained little: the father and child’s printed names, both shakily written in block capitals, a signature that could have represented any name, and a series of checkboxes headed by the title “Reason For Withdrawal”. The one marked was labelled “student transferring to school out of province”.
Raffi and I opened our mouths at the same time, and I deferred to him. “Carol, you said Gary was going to India. Did he or his father ever say so explicitly?”
Carol seemed surprised. “You know, come to think of it – he didn’t. I just assumed, I guess. When the Indian kids leave in the middle of the year, that’s usually why, but like I said, even on Gary’s last day here I didn’t know he was leaving. Mel, he say anything to you?”
The receptionist replied quickly: “I asked, and he told me they were going to India.”
Raffi again: “Did you say ‘where are you going?’ or ‘are you going to India?’”
This time Melanie had to think for a moment. “I honestly don’t remember. Does it make a difference?”
“Maybe, maybe not.”
None of us spoke for a few seconds, and then I pointed to the form. “This looks like it was filled in by a child.”
Melanie shook her head. “No, you know what it is? He was leaning over the counter to fill out the form, and it kept moving around because he wasn’t holding it down. He had his left arm in some sort of a cast – a brace.”
I nodded. Information. Maybe relevant, maybe not.
“Do you know for sure that it was the father who came in?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The man who came in. Are you sure it was the father and not someone else?”
Melanie blinked, startled. “Who else would it be?”
“Are you sure it was the father?” I repeated. “Did you check his ID?”
“Yes. We take security here very seriously.”
“You didn’t check my ID. Or Raffi’s.”
“Carol told me she was expecting you.”
“And you were expecting Mr. Thomas.”
Melanie shook her head, as though trying to shake away the line of questioning. “Yes, but he seemed so...so off over the phone that I made a point of checking.”
“And looking closely at the picture, making sure that it looked just like him?” I thought back to Harsha’s imposter, Roger transcribing all of the text on her driver’s licence, neither of us noticing that the woman who had handed us the document was not the one pictured on it.
“What are you suggesting?” she demanded, which I supposed was answer enough.
“Just thinking out loud,” I muttered. I was frustrated that the receptionist hadn’t been more perceptive than me or Roger when handling a stranger’s identity documents. Which translated into frustration with myself, for having gotten involved in the first place, for not recognizing what it was.
“What did he look like?” I asked.
“Medium height, not thin, not overweight,” Melanie answered, back on firmer footing. “And dark. Darker than you,” she continued, nodding toward Raffi, “but not as dark as the boy in the picture Carol showed me.”
“Indian?” I asked.
This time Melanie needed to think. “You know, I assumed so, just on account of the boy, but if I saw him in the street? I’m not sure.”
“I’ve heard Thomas as an Indian name,” interrupted Raffi.
“Can you picture him?” I asked.
She seemed surprised at the question, but I was thinking of Ray, who had been able to take my clear mental image of the driver with Harsha Gill’s licence, and put it on paper. “I think. Kind of. He was wearing a hat, glasses, a coat.”
The four of us stood silently for a minute or so, and then Raffi cut in.
“Do you have his registration form?”
The receptionist nodded vigorously, sat down, and wheeled herself back to the filing cabinet. She pulled out another form, and examined it as she wheeled herself back to us. “I think this one was filled in by the mother.”
She set the form on the counter, and Raffi and I crowded around it again. This one had more information. The names of both parents, Manny and Anoushka Thomas, were written in the same hand; the latter’s signature appeared at the bottom of the page. There was a single residence, on Abbotsford Crescent, listed for mother, father, and son. Gary Thomas was listed as a Canadian citizen born in Canada.
“Can I have a copy of these?” asked Raffi.
“Two copies,” I said.
Melanie collected the two pages and wheeled herself over to a photocopier, which required her to stand. For someone who claimed to take security seriously, she seemed untroubled by two strangers’ requests for what I could only assume were confidential files. The machine spat out three sets of two pages, and she handed them to Raffi and me.
Raffi studied the registration form for a few seconds before looking up again. “The parents, do they fill those out here?”
“Sometimes. Other times they print them out and bring them in, and we’re slowly moving to an online system...why?”
“Wondering if you got a look at the mother.”
Melanie grimaced, and shook her head. “I see so many parents,” she said apologetically. “I couldn’t say.”
None of us could think of anything else, so we thanked the receptionist and departed with Carol.
In the hallway, as we were walking toward the parking lot, Carol addressed Raffi: “You’re a crime reporter. Does this sound suspicious?”
Raffi stopped, and turned to face her. “I’m a reporter, not an investigator,” he said. He spoke with a measured gentleness I hadn’t imagined him capable of. “It’s not like TV. Most of what I cover is fairly straightforward: break-ins, the occasional assault. Criminals usually aren’t very clever: nine times out of ten there’s no mystery whatsoever. Woman gets killed, it’s the husband or the boyfriend. Car gets stolen, it’s a bunch of neighbourhood kids known to the police. This...” – at this he gestured aimlessly at the hallway – “sounds strange, but it could be any number of things. Not all of which are illegal.”
Carol nodded. “I called the police,” she said. “two weeks ago. Told them what happened, told them I was worried. They told me the same thing: that it’s not a crime for a parent to take their child out of school and leave town, even if that parent is acting funny.”
“I can make some calls.”
We walked the rest of the way to Raffi’s car in silence, and went through the usual ritual of thanking one another and promising to keep in touch, and then Carol left to find her vehicle.
I spoke first. “What are you going to do now?”
Raffi shrugged. “Talk to Har,” he said. The edge in his voice was back. “Ask her what she wants me to do about a kid who no one can find, a kid no one’s reported missing, who may have been the one you saw, and whose mother kind of looks familiar and could possibly be the one who’s using her identity, but hey, maybe not, right?”
I nodded, letting his anger wash over me.
He opened the driver’s seat door, and, almost as a second thought, turned to face me. “She said I’d get the story if I found anything,” he said suddenly. He seemed to be thinking aloud, and I waited him out. “But I’d get the story anyway; who the fuck else is the Trail going to give it to? Did she even go to the cops?”
He was staring at me again, that unwavering gaze, and I chose my next words carefully. “We went to the police station together,” I said evenly. “She filled out a police report. But she didn’t seem to get the impression that the cop she spoke to was going to be looking for this woman. Hence the column.”
Raffi kept staring. I kept my expression blank. I hadn’t told him a single thing that wasn’t true, but someone with a reporter’s skills and access could figure out the rest of my story easily enough by asking the right questions of the right people. And I didn’t trust him. I didn’t trust anyone involved, for that matter: Raffi was out for a story; Harsha, for revenge; and whatever police department was in charge of investigating identity theft, for the true identity of the woman using Harsha Gill’s licence, whom they would punish accordingly. I wanted to know more about the dignified woman and the silent children before turning them over to anyone else.
But what harm had this driver even done? I thought of Harsha Gill’s stolen wallet, unnoticed for the better part of a week, and with the credit cards unused – something that had bewildered both Harsha and me, because we both expected a thief to be after money. But a thief who used a stranger’s licence but not her credit cards made perfect sense if the thief was instead after cover. My mind flashed to the scene of the accident: to the driver, whose combination of fear and indifference when Roger and I had informed her about the relevant procedures had struck me as so bizarre at the time; and to the two children, whose behaviour I had thought unusually subdued even then. Everything made a lot more sense in the context of a family – three quarters of a family – trying to hide. I stifled a shudder.
And then there was Manny Thomas – the driver’s husband? Did he know her whereabouts? I wondered if he was following Harsha’s column. The thought made me queasy, and I found myself squeezing my eyes shut, as though trying to crush it.
“...story to file for tomorrow,” Raffi was saying, as he sat down in the driver’s seat. “I’d better get going. Nice meeting you.” He didn’t sound convinced.
“You too,” I said. Neither of us bothered with hand-shaking, exchanges of business cards, or promises to follow up. Roger wouldn’t have approved.