MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 15

If I had managed the previous evening to keep my father’s demons at bay, I had done so by rousing my own. I slept restlessly that night, battered by a series of dreams in which I ate a stack of chocolate chip cookies as my father was variously kidnapped, beaten, robbed, and killed. In each, I saw an assailant, but woke just before he turned to face me. In none of the dreams did I see Anoushka Thomas, Harsha Gill’s imposter, or the children. Over and over I watched my father taken from me, but even in my subconscious the others were long gone.

At eight o’clock I gave up on sleep, grabbed a sweater, and headed next door to Mrs. Chandler’s house.

Gwen Chandler had lived next to my father for as long as I could remember, and served as the neighbourhood’s mom, arranging book clubs, potlucks, and garage sales for the block. Neither my father nor I had ever participated in any of those activities, but she played a greater role in our lives than in any of our neighbours’. She’d taken me under her wing after my mother’s death, and some of my most vivid early memories were of sitting on her living room floor, playing with her children’s old toys while I waited for my father to return from work. After I’d left home, our visits had tapered off to one or two a year, but they were always fond ones.

The lights were on in her house, and I saw shadows moving behind the curtain. I knocked lightly, and heard a voice call out behind the door. A few seconds later, my neighbour answered. She was clad in a bathrobe, holding a cup of coffee. Her uncombed, curly hair was greyer than it had been the last time I’d seen her, and she had a few more wrinkles, but she’d always dressed unpretentiously, and had changed less than my father or I had over the decade. She was in her mid-sixties, I knew, just a few years younger than my father, but I couldn’t imagine her as ever being old, or my father as ever having been young.

She squinted at me for a minute, and then broke into a smile. “Kathleen Kovalevsky,” she exclaimed. “Oh my goodness. Come in, come in. You look great.”

I smiled. “You too.” Greetings were still awkward, even after all these years. My father had raised me never to call adults by their given names, but my inaugural use of her surname met with some combination of amusement and annoyance – Mrs. Chandler’s my mother-in-law, call me Gwen – and for the past two and a half decades I’d reconciled the conflicting messages by avoiding addressing our neighbour as anything. As I grew older, the fact that I had nothing to call the second-to-most important person in my life felt symptomatic of a greater deficiency, as did my feeling that it was too late to remedy it.

Now, I stood in her doorway for a few seconds, no less awkward than I’d been as a four-year-old, trying to figure out how to raise the subject I’d come to raise; and she too slipped back into her default role, and raised it for me.

“How have you been? Your father tells me you’re back often but I never see you…and how is your father these days? Seems we just miss each other as well.”

I told her I was doing fine, but that my father was getting on in years, and to be honest I was a bit worried about him. She listened attentively as I continued: “So I was wondering, since I can’t be here as often as I’d like, if you could maybe just keep an eye on him, let me know if anything seems wrong, that sort of thing.”

She nodded sympathetically. “It’s hard for him, all alone, isn’t it? Anything in particular you’re concerned about?”

“Not really,” I said, and that lie sat heavier in my chest than any of the others I’d told.

On Monday I set aside my reservations about getting the law involved, and phoned the local police station. I was honest, if not thorough, about my concerns. I told them, to the best of my recollection, the exact wording of the phone call, adding that while I suspected I knew who the caller was, I couldn’t confirm his identity, nor did I know how he could be reached: Manny had phoned from a blocked number. The operator told me that while she understood why I was worried, the phone call hadn’t technically constituted a threat, since it hadn’t contained a specific statement of intent to cause harm. Therefore, there was nothing that could be done from a legal standpoint. Best to give strangers who blindside you with all of the details they know about your personal life the benefit of the doubt, apparently. She suggested I call a private security company, which I did, going through the story again, and adding that this was someone related to a driver I’d encountered during an accident.

This operator was sympathetic, and kept me on the line for a few minutes explaining my options. Did my father have a security system? he asked. I answered in the affirmative, and was told that was probably enough, given what I’d described. I couldn’t think of a way to mention that I suspected multiple women and children were dead at the hands of this caller, so I asked what else could be done. He ran me through some options involving bodyguards and surveillance, which even to me seemed like overkill, particularly when he gave me an estimate: I’d be broke within a month.

I spent Tuesday in a daze; I wasn’t getting anything done in the office, and if either Sanjay or Roger noticed, they didn’t think it was worth mentioning to me. I felt helpless and didn’t know if it mattered. Anoushka, Harsha Gill’s identity thief, and two (four?) children had disappeared, and a man connected with all of them was more than a little troubled by my interest in them. Manny’s words echoed in my head: I’m making you a one-time offer. You can take it and come out ahead, or you can fuck things up for everyone. I thought about what I was trying to achieve – find the missing people – and if they were dead, then certainly no amount of digging would help them. Was anyone else in danger? I had no idea.

My head was swimming, and I closed my eyes, trying to will away my thoughts of my father, or Harsha Gill, of car accidents, of kindergarten children taken from their classrooms. I couldn’t. Manny’s voice kept crowding my thoughts, throughout the rest of the workday, and then later at home, as I lay on my bed staring idly at the ceiling and –

I sat up with a start, an incongruity leaping out at me. Kathleen – good to finally talk to you. … Not many Kovalevskys in the book.

Anoushka and I had never met. Harsha’s thief and I had, of course, and perhaps she’d been in contact with Manny Thomas following the accident and given him my name; but the indifference with which she’d transcribed the information from my driver’s licence made me doubt it. She never filled out a police report; she’d probably tossed the paper as soon as she sped off, assuming she’d even written anything down at all. I grabbed my laptop and opened a browser to Harsha’s column about the car accident. Sure enough, my name didn’t appear anywhere; as I’d remembered, I appeared simply as “the young woman from Vancouver”. Where else could he have gotten my name? From the police report? But that would have required access that he didn’t have, unless he was a lot better connected than I. From Raffi, or Carol, or Melanie, or Hailey? But now we were in conspiracy theory territory.

Before I could think better of it, I grabbed my phone, and scrolled through my logs until I found the 403 number I was looking for.

“Harsha. Kathleen here.”

“Oh, hi, Kathleen.” Her voice was flat. “Hey, I mailed you that book last week, but don’t worry about it.”

Book? Right: the romance novel. I had forgotten about that, and no longer cared. “Did Manny call you?” I demanded.

She hesitated a second too long. “Who?”

I clenched my fists. “You know damn well who! What did you tell him?”

“What are you talking about?” She remained calm, her words uninflected with defensiveness.

“Manny Thomas. You sicced him on me, and now he’s harassing my father. What the fuck, Harsha?” I stood up and began to pace, and found myself getting angry at my living room for being so small. I kicked the foot of my couch in frustration.

“I – no, no! God, no!” Her voice was animated now. “I don’t know what you’re talking about! I didn’t give him your name or anything!”

“So you did talk to him.”

“Yes, but –”

“How the hell did he know to call me – to call my father? How did he even know who I was?”

Her voice became shrill. “I don’t know! He just did!”

I fell back onto the couch and rested my head in my hands, trying to make sense of this. Harsha had heard from Manny Thomas, but hadn’t wanted me to know that. When I called her bluff, she admitted having spoken to him, and acknowledged that my name had come up, but that she hadn’t given it to him. In spite of what I knew of her, I was going to believe her on that point; why lie about it and not the rest, after all.

“Okay,” I said finally. I took a few deep breaths. “I’m sorry; you didn’t point him to me. I’m just trying to figure out how he found me. What did he say about me?”

“Nothing, he just mentioned you.”

“Just mentioned me? Did he say how he got my name?”

“No, he didn’t.”

I waited a few seconds to see if she decided to share anything else with me. “So in what context did my name come up?”

“Nothing, it just did.”

“Harsha!” I kicked the coffee table, and sent a can of beer on its side in the process. I caught it just as it started to spill. “How. Did. My. Name. Come. Up.”

“Listen, I don’t remember, okay!” Defensive again. “Why is this so important to you?”

“To me?” I shouted. “You’re the one hell-bent on finding your identity thief, to the point of lying to the police, for crying out loud! Don’t you care if someone involved is getting close to me?”

A moment passed, and I realized, belatedly, that, concerned and confused about the missing women and children, I had left Harsha out of my investigations. I had no idea what I was doing here. I sank into the couch in despair.

“Listen,” she continued, “I never thanked you properly.” Cool again. The whole conversation was throwing me off-balance: Harsha in turns hot and cold, dismissive and defensive. I couldn’t make sense of it and I couldn’t keep up. “But look, like I said before, no one used my credit cards or anything, no one filed an insurance claim, so I don’t even have to pay extra or anything. I’m not worrying about this anymore and neither should you. And don’t get whatshername, Amy involved either, it’s a waste of time.”

Amy? I blinked. “What?” The penny dropped: “Did he threaten you too? Ohhhh, he knows you lied in your column, obviously, because -”

“No!” Too quickly. “I just lost interest, okay? Now give it a rest.”

“What does he have on you?” I demanded.

“Nothing! I just decided not to waste my time. Only two percent of ID thefts get solved, you know.”

“Yeah,” I said dully. “I know.”

The phone went dead, and I tossed it onto the coffee table, displacing my beer again. It was that kind of day.

My phone call with Harsha left me more confused than ever, and I found myself back at the homepage of her blog, searching for clues about her sudden reversal. Her latest column – a (wholly fabricated, I assume) account of a disastrous blind date with a recent immigrant, offered none. The original column about the car accident now had over six hundred comments; I skimmed a few of the new ones, but as far as I could tell, there was nothing beyond the morass of sycophancy I’d waded through the previous week.

I returned to work on Wednesday, and Sanjay put me to work testing a project that one of the other teams had been working on. I didn’t know what to make of that – it had been years since I’d done any formal testing of any project I hadn’t played a part in developing – but I said nothing, grateful for the distraction.

Back at home, I found a bulky envelope jammed into my small mailbox. I wrestled it free, tore it open, and extracted a copy of Dowry, Annamaria Bellini’s unlikely tale of forbidden love between a rugged construction worker and a wealthy Indian princess living, for reasons not made clear in the blurb, in Alberta. At this size, it was clear that the woman on the cover was the one I had met: at this resolution, her left eye appeared only slightly darker than her right, but the small stature, the defiant set of the shoulders, and the long hair were unquestionably hers. A note in Harsha’s hand answered another question: This is from Amy Blenheim (pen name Annamaria Bellini). Does the woman in the cover look familiar? Let me know. Thanks, H. PS – the book is even worse than it looks.

The author’s phone number and email address followed. I checked the stamp: Harsha had sent the book to me on Friday, and was obviously still interested in my help at the time. Sometime between then and Tuesday, Manny Thomas had gotten to her.

I arrived late to work on Thursday, greeting the receptionist, Ellen, who signalled for me to wait as she wrapped up a phone call. “Someone called for you several times this week,” she said as she replaced the receiver. “I gave him your extension, but he keeps going through the switchboard. Do you know who I’m talking about?”

The room was suddenly very cold. “Oh, yeah. New client. Bit of a control freak. Likes a lot of updates.”

Ellen nodded sympathetically. “Those ones are the worst, aren’t they?”

“The worst,” I agreed.

Back at my desk, the light on my phone wasn’t blinking. It seldom did; everyone we worked with preferred email.

I spent the morning testing the project Sanjay had given me, entering nonsensical data, reading in corrupt files, trying every which way I could imagine to break the program so as to identify and correct weaknesses before the client had a chance to do the same. At lunch, Sanjay joined me in the kitchen and I asked if he wanted to give me the source code so that I could see about fixing the bugs myself. He asked me about the nature of the bugs I’d found; when I described them, he told me that the project deadline was the next day and that right now they were only fixing problems that were likely to interfere with typical use of the program. I went back to my desk and poked around the program some more, probing for security loopholes that any halfway competent developer would have addressed from the beginning. It was low-key work oddly suited to my mood.

On Friday morning, the office was nearly empty, and I went back to inflict abuse on the project. It seemed to be able to take most of what I dished out, and what it didn’t, I dutifully logged in the bug database. I scrolled through the records, and saw that nothing I had logged had been addressed. Nevertheless, I plodded on, focusing resolutely on the screen as Roger approached my cubicle. He stood to the side for a full minute while I made a show of alternating squinting at the screen and filling in the text boxes on the screen. Finally he cleared his throat loudly, and I had no choice but to turn around.

“Good morning, Roger,” I said.

“Good morning, Kathleen,” he returned. He stared at his feet for a moment, and then said, “I’d like to meet with you in my office sometime today.”

“Oh, you know, I’m testing a project that has to be with the client today,” I said. “This can’t wait until Monday?”

He shuffled about for a bit. “I’m afraid not.” He looked directly into my eyes, and said, “This won’t take long at all.”

I nodded. Roger had always conducted whatever business he’d had beside my desk. No point dragging this out. “Now?”

“Oh – oh, not now – can we meet in half an hour? Ten o’clock?”

“Ten o’clock. Let me enter that into my calendar.”

He nodded solemnly.

I didn’t even pretend to look busy for the next half hour.

Roger sat behind his desk with a green folder in his lap, and stood up while I entered. Sanjay sat beside him, staring at his hands.

“Have a seat, Kathleen,” Roger said.

I shook my head. “That’s okay, I’d rather stand. I’m sure this won’t take long, anyway.”

At this Sanjay raised his head. “Kathleen, I want you to know that this has nothing to do with the quality of your work. You’ve done excellent work ever since we’ve worked together, but business is slow, and we can’t afford –”

“When’s my last day?” I interrupted.

They exchanged glances, and I saw Roger defer to my direct supervisor. “We can keep you on for another two weeks,” Sanjay said.

“Since you’ve been here six months, you’re entitled to two weeks’ severance,” added Roger.

I ignored him, and addressed Sanjay. “Do you have any work for me to do for the next two weeks?”

“There’s always some testing to be done, and there are some scripts that -”

“I’m going to clear out my desk now,” I said. I pointed to the folder in his hand. “Is that for me?”

“That’s not necessary,” Roger said. “You have two weeks left –” He stopped abruptly, and I saw that Sanjay had put his hand on his arm. Roger nodded. “Timesheets so we can make sure you get your unclaimed vacation paid out. And Employment Insurance forms for you.”

I took the folder. “I’ll drop off the timesheets next week.” I turned to leave, walked back to my desk, and fell heavily into my chair. A few seconds or a few minutes or a few hours passed, and I felt a hand on my shoulder. Inwardly I jumped, but I willed myself to turn around slowly.

“I’m sorry,” Sanjay said simply. I nodded, and set about emptying my desk drawers.

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