MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 13

Back at the office, rested and on time, I pulled out Roger’s yellow folder, and set Gary Thomas’ registration and withdrawal forms on top of the growing pile: the invoice for Ray’s sketch, Harsha’s police report, and Roger’s notes. Actual work was still suspiciously slow, and rather than take initiative on that front, I spent a half hour or so mucking about on the web to see if I could find some information from the comfort of my wheeled office chair. I hit a wall pretty quickly: the province of Alberta didn’t make it easy for random people to find personal information about its residents online.

I needed someone with better connections. I picked up the phone and was halfway through dialing Raffi’s number when I had second thoughts. Concern for the women and children had supplanted curiosity at my end, but I couldn’t trust that the same was true for the reporter. I mulled this over for a few minutes, puttering around here and there online, when I remembered the invoice. I didn’t know how often a man whose tools were a sketchpad and a soft-lead pencil checked his email, so I dialed his number instead.

He wasn’t in. I left a diffident and meandering message on his voicemail, giving my name and number, a brief I’m-not-sure-if-you-remember-me biography that I cut short when I realized it could be interpreted as an insinuation that I thought his memory was so poor as to suggest brain damage, and then launched into my request. It had to do with the woman he’d sketched for me, I told him, but I wasn’t sure precisely how, and I wasn’t sure there was an actual crime, per se, so he could see why I didn’t want to get the cops involved directly. Eventually I got tired of talking to myself, and got to the point: I had a licence plate number, which I enunciated here, and wondered if he might be able to tell me who it was registered to, seeing as how he did work for the police, so I thought maybe he had contacts who could help him? I thanked him preemptively for his time and repeated my name and phone number before gracelessly ending the call. God, I hated voicemail.

Much to my surprise, the province of Alberta – and in fact the entire country – made it quite easy for random people to find phone numbers by address. A search on canada411 provided me with over a dozen numbers for Anoushka Thomas and her neighbours on Abbotsford Crescent, including one for the Donaldson family at 253, where I had found Hailey, the babysitter. I copied the names and numbers to a file, marking Hailey’s with an asterisk.

I killed the next few hours half-heartedly documenting the database for the seed cooperative, at which point my phone buzzed.

Harsha: Do you read romance novels?

me: ?????

Harsha: commenter @62, 232

I loaded Harsha’s blog post, and scrolled down to the comments, which now numbered 255. Good grief. Comment number 62 was from the friend of the sister of the romance author, who thought that the cover of her book featured a photograph of Harsha’s imposter. A hundred and seventy comments down was another entry from the same friend, this one with a link to the publisher, a local outfit called Heartland of Alberta. The link took me directly to a page where readers who fantasized about being seduced by billionaire underwear models who lived in their very own neighbourhoods could purchase the books directly from the publisher. Each listing consisted of a thumbnail of the cover of the book, a brief synopsis of the plot, and an invitation to “Purchase This Book Now!”

Harsha: Scroll down to “Dowry”.

A few screens down was a book by that title, which apparently chronicled the unlikely courtship of a pair of star-crossed lovers: Fatima, a shy but wealthy Indian immigrant; and Cliff, a poor but virile white construction worker. Could their relationship transcend cultural barriers? The question was left open, but I was willing to bet decent money that it could. In the cover picture, the construction worker was a clone of every other man who appeared on the romance novels I’d seen in supermarket checkout lines: a bodybuilder wearing little besides a pair of boxer shorts. By contrast, his love, whom he embraced from behind, was modestly clad in a sari. The Rocky Mountains, or some stand-in, acted as their backdrop. The woman’s knee-length dark hair billowed around her photogenically.

I clicked on the cover photo, but no larger image was available. Nevertheless, even the tiny thumbnail made it clear why the friend of the author’s had brought the book to Harsha’s attention.

Harsha: @62 thinks Fatima looks like the woman in the sketch. You?

me: Can’t tell from the tiny picture. It’s possible.

Harsha: Are you willing to pay $7.99 + shipping to find out?

me: I’ll check the library first.

Harsha: Already checked. No copies in Calgary or Vancouver.

me: Really? Calgary library doesn’t carry this “gripping tale of forbidden love, set right here in the Foothills?”

Harsha: Must be absolute dreck.

me: It’s probably not her, anyway.

I left my phone open for another few minutes, but Harsha didn’t respond. Finally, I returned to the Heartland of Alberta website, added a copy of Dowry to my cart, and provided the publisher with my name, address, and $10.98 in order to find out the particulars of the formidable obstacles that Fatima and Cliff would have to overcome before they could pursue a future with one another.

I took exactly an hour and six minutes for lunch, grabbing a hot dog at a cart outside and then wandering over to the waterfront. I wasn’t keeping careful track of how long I was gone, but apparently Roger was, and when I returned I found him waiting at my desk to remind me that Stratitech offered an hour for lunch, an hour exactly, and we could take it anytime beginning no earlier than noon and ending no later than two, and that was plenty generous, more than a lot of companies, and he knew I wasn’t used to working with a strict schedule, but here in an office…After a few seconds of this I tuned him out, but I did make a point of timing this lesson: six and a half minutes. I didn’t share this information with him.

Nor did I ask him, or Sanjay, how they wanted me to spend the rest of my day. I did a passable job of looking busy for the next few hours – passable in that Roger left me alone – and at half past three, I dialed the Donaldson residence. Hailey had just gotten home, and her mother put me through to her.

“From Vancouver,” she said when I gave my name. Having established my identity, I dispensed with additional preliminaries and asked if she’d recognized the sketch on Harsha’s blog.

“You mean the lady with the pen?” she asked. “You already asked me. I dunno, maybe I’ve seen her around.”

Inspiration suddenly struck, and I ran with it: “Because – this might seem weird – the other day, after I spoke to you, I was asking your neighbours if they knew how I could reach the Thomases, and one of them said ‘Maybe she sold that fancy pen and bought a new house!’ When I asked what he was talking about, he said that he saw her picture on a website; seems he was talking about Harsha’s blog.”

“Huh?” Her confusion sounded genuine. “He thought the lady with the pen was Anoushka? No way, it’s not her.”

“Oh, I know it’s not her. But they look sort of alike, and I haven’t seen Anoushka lately. Maybe it’s her sister or something, do you think?”

“No way,” Hailey said without hesitation. “Anoushka speaks perfect English, like she was born here, or she moved here when she was little.”

“Yeah, she grew up here,” I said agreeably.

“And she and the pen lady are like the same age. But in her blog, Harsha said the pen lady spoke with an accent.”

More data. “Good point, I forgot about that part of the column,” I said. “Listen, you sound like you’re a good babysitter. If the Thomases moved nearby, I bet they’ll call you again. If they do, can you let me know so I can get in touch?”

There was a long pause, a responsible teenager negotiating the balance between two guidelines forever at odds with one another: respect for one’s elders and a defensive suspicion of strangers. “How about you give me your number, and if I see her I’ll tell her her friend Kathleen was looking for her.”

I smiled in spite of myself. Smart kid. Smarter than most of the adults I’d dealt with. “That’s a good idea,” I said, and meant it. I spelled out my last name and gave Hailey my number, with no expectations of Anoushka Thomas ever using them to phone me. But I suspected that the Thomases - at least Anoushka and the kids – were long gone, so I couldn’t be too upset. Not about this, anyway.

I spent the next hour filling out some of the useless reports that Roger mandated but likely never read, taking nearly as much time to document the week’s activities as I’d spent performing them. I kept the forms in a half-finished and highly visible state for the next hour and a half, while I fired off an email to Raffi telling him that I had it on good authority that the mother of the kindergarten boy wasn’t the woman Harsha Gill was seeking. I threw in a few apologies for good measure, hoping they would be enough to quash any residual curiosity on Raffi’s part. He’d said, more than once, that he wasn’t a detective, but I couldn’t imagine him turning away an interesting story on his beat. And I didn’t want him pursuing this, not when landing a story was his main motivation for finding a scared woman whose reason for stealing someone else’s identity remained a mystery. And not when another woman and her children had disappeared from the city without notice, and without a trace.

Tethered to my desk, with no work to do, I mulled over what I knew, and wrote it down, hoping something would jump out at me. Nothing did. What I had was this: an Indian, or Indian-looking woman with Harsha Gill’s identity and two small children in the backseat of someone else’s car, whose reaction to being involved in a minor car accident wasn’t anger, or frustration, but calm. I had a few hundred comments on a widely-read blog that offered a cash reward for pointing Harsha Gill to this woman, and none of them was from anyone who knew this woman personally. I had another family, also Indian, headed by a different woman, also with two small children, and a man who had withdrawn the school-aged one from kindergarten, and then disappeared as well – along with? before? after? – the woman and her children. That family seemed to have some roots in the community, at least more than the fake Harsha Gill’s. But their acquaintances hadn’t been told they were leaving, either.

Nothing made any more sense in my handwriting than it did in my head.

At six minutes past five, I turned in my paperwork and left the office.

Back home, Louise was watering the plants, and we chatted about the agreeable weather and the garden, neither of which I particularly cared about, for long enough to avoid seeming rude. I walked the two flights up to my suite, and felt my phone vibrate as I was fitting my key in the lock. I fished the phone out with my free hand, accepted the call, and jammed the device between my shoulder and my neck as I let myself in.

“Hello?”

“Is this Kathleen?”

“Speaking.”

“Ray Doherty from Calgary. Is this a bad time?”

I closed the door behind me, and grabbed the phone with both hands. “Ray! No, no. Thanks for calling me back.”

“I have the plate you gave me. No trouble at all; I have contacts with the province. Do you have a pen?”

“Hold on.” I pulled open my cutlery drawer, found a stray pen, and grabbed an envelope from the counter. My heartbeat quickened, though I didn’t know what I was expecting. “Okay, I’m ready.”

“The name of the owner is Thomas – that’s Thomas with an h. Address is 280 Abbotsford Crescent. And the phone number –”

He rattled off ten familiar digits. I didn’t bother to write them down; the number was in my records already, and no one had reached a human at the other end in weeks.

“Kathleen? Are you still there?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m here. Listen, thanks. I really appreciate your doing this for me.”

“Like I said, it was no trouble at all. I hope it helps.”

“It helps. I’m not sure how just yet, though.”

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