MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 17

My first weekend of unemployment felt like any other. I passed Saturday and Sunday lazily, dawdling through meal preparation and cleanup, catching up on current events online, and maiming a few hours watching impossibly good-looking people bicker on television in some sort of choreography marketed as ‘reality’. This lost its appeal fairly quickly, and I retired to bed early on Sunday, and woke up rested early enough on Monday to be fully functional at a job I didn’t have. From my window, I could see the bustle of activity that no longer included me. I didn’t miss the actual day-to-day of Stratitech, which made it worse: I couldn’t justify, even to myself, how unbalanced I felt in the absence of a job that hadn’t in any sense challenged or fulfilled me.

In my newly-organized kitchen, I brewed a pot of coffee and set about making a batch of pancakes. The cooking, eating, and cleaning only took me to nine o’clock. Fourteen hours to fill, give or take. I tried to think of the errands and chores I’d been putting off for months; might as well take care of those now. It had been ages since I’d seen a dentist or an eye doctor; it would probably be wise to take advantage of my medical benefits while I still had them. I was able to get two appointments within the week, which would take care of another few hours before I next visited my father. What else? I’d filed my federal taxes a month or so earlier, but I vaguely remembered a property tax notice I’d set aside to pay later. Well, no time like the present. A few seconds of Googling invoked the online payment form, which wouldn’t let me go anywhere until I provided the 12-digit number on the tax notice. Without such a security measure, apparently, do-gooders throughout the city would be paying their neighbours’ property taxes with impunity. I set my laptop on the coffee table and returned to the drawer of bills and receipts.

A few days earlier, that drawer had been teeming. Today, it contained only the dozen or so pages that had survived Friday’s cull. Nevertheless, the property tax notice was missing. But my carelessness didn’t send me cursing at an empty room; with my calendar empty, I welcomed the excuse to get out of the apartment and head to City Hall.

In the stairwell, I gave a friendly wave to Louise, who was vacuuming. But when she caught my eye, instead of returning the silent greeting, she switched off the machine and peered at me over her glasses. “Well hellooo, Kathleen,” she drawled. “Are we looking at another resident in two-oh-one in the near future?”

I shook my head, confused. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“And your friend isn’t moving in, either?” She infused the word with more significance than it deserved, which was none: no one other than my father had visited me in months.

“Bearded guy, late sixties?” I asked. “That’s my dad. You’ve met him.”

Louise shook her head, still smiling. “No, I’m talking about the other fellow, the younger one with black hair.”

I shrugged, and forced a half-grin. A month or two earlier I’d have brushed off this encounter as a case of mistaken identity, but in the context of the growing disconnect between what I’d pictured my life to be and what it was becoming, I felt myself growing queasy. “No one I know,” I said lightly. “Must have been visiting someone else.”

“No.” Louise shook her head emphatically. “He was staying with you, mentioned you by name and everything.” She leaned toward me, still smiling. “Don’t you worry, I won’t say a word to your father if you don’t want me to.”

I stepped back. “Louise. Listen to me. The only person who’s visited me recently is my father. If anyone else were staying here, it wouldn’t be any big secret. What did this person look like?”

At that, Louise’s entire body slackened; her smile faded, and she loosened her grip on the vacuum cleaner. “Oh, God…Dark, forty or so. One of his arms was hanging by his side, like it was injured. Shit!” she exclaimed. “You’re saying he wasn’t staying with you?”

“Is there another Kathleen in this building, maybe he was referring to her?” I asked, pointlessly.

“He said Kathleen Kovalevsky, first and last names, and even mentioned that you worked at that computer company on Granville. Are you still working there?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Shit!” She looked genuinely distressed now. “And with all the signs I put up about security. But you know this man I’m talking about, right? Because he seemed to know you.”

The stairwell suddenly felt very hot. I removed my jacket and swung it over my arm. “You’re saying you let him in?”

“He knew your name! And that you were in two-oh-one, that’s not your buzzer number. And he had laundry.”

“Hold on.” I closed the gap between us. “You let him into my unit? Not just the building?”

“He had laundry!”

“Louise. Tell me what happened.” The phone calls at work suddenly fell into place: Manny Thomas checking to make sure I wasn’t home.

She’d grown pale. “He called me – he was already inside, my number’s on the bulletin board in the lobby – saying that he was staying with you, with Kathleen Kovalevsky who works at the computer company on Granville – I forget the name but he knew it – and that he was doing laundry and that he’d dropped your key down the grate, and the last thing he wanted to do was interrupt you at work, and could I let him in.”

“So you let him in. You didn’t think to ask for ID?”

“I believed him! Why wouldn’t I believe him? Why would he make that up? He had a basket full of laundry, I figured he’d been staying for a while, if he had a key and was doing laundry.”

So the sock had found its way into my living room by some means unrelated to my own carelessness. Cold comfort. The laundry room wasn’t locked; anyone inside the building could get in. My visitor didn’t even have to pack his own clothes; he could just grab a pile from a dryer, stuff them into a basket, and head upstairs.

“You said he was already in the building? You didn’t let him in?”

“No. Probably he followed someone else in. That’s why we have the signs up, telling people not to let strangers follow them into the building.”

“But letting strangers into some resident’s apartment,” I snapped, “that part’s fine.”

Louise opened her mouth to protest, but closed it immediately, ego falling to guilt.

We stood there for a few seconds, me glaring, Louise holding my gaze in a silent plea for forgiveness. “When was this?” I asked, more gently this time.

“Last Tuesday.”

I nodded, and then thought of something else. “Did you give him the key?”

She nodded glumly.

“I want my locks changed,” I said. “Today.”

Louise nodded. “I’ll call a locksmith as soon as I’m finished with the carpets. She looked up at me again. “I’m really sorry, Kathleen,” she repeated, uselessly.

“Yeah,” I replied. I turned to leave, withholding my forgiveness for no reason other than to make someone else share in my anger. For whatever it was worth, I felt no better for it.

Manny Thomas – it had to be him, with the injured arm – hadn’t alerted me to his presence by what I presumed were the usual means: missing valuables, living space in disarray, etc. Well, perhaps part of the disarray I’d returned to the previous week had been his doing, but I couldn’t tell and doubted it mattered. But someone searching for the usual electronics or jewelry wouldn’t go to the trouble of talking his way into a second-floor apartment in a strange city to obtain them. I figured I would find out soon enough why he’d come.

Twenty minutes after leaving my apartment, the Canada Line deposited me at City Hall. I followed a few signs and asked a few official-looking people to point me to the place where people who couldn’t keep their paperwork in order went to pay their property taxes. The line was short this time of year, and soon after I entered it, it ejected me at the station of a thirtyish blonde who was groomed and dressed the way that Roger had wanted me to be groomed and dressed. If I’d met her three months earlier, I might have asked her where she’d bought her suit and had her hair done. But that was no longer an issue, so I just explained that I’d lost my notice and presented her with my driver’s licence.

Ten perfectly manicured fingers flitted across the keyboard, and I saw the clerk squint, enter a few more keystrokes, and then inform me, “You’re all paid up.”

I shook my head. “The last time I paid was in the winter. There was another notice, I think due July.”

The clerk pivoted the monitor toward me and tapped a red fingernail on the screen. “Most recent payment was…five days ago, Wednesday. Eight hundred and seventy-eight dollars.”

I leaned toward the screen, as though an explanation lay there. My own name and my own address appeared on the active record. So my missing tax notice hadn’t been a victim of my haphazard filing system. “I didn’t pay that,” I said dumbly.

The clerk flashed me a broad smile. “Well, someone did. Your husband, maybe?”

“No, no,” I said absently. Then: “Do you have a record of who paid this?”

She smiled politely. “I can’t give you that information.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Seriously? You can’t tell me how my property taxes were paid?”

“I’m not authorized to –”

“Can I speak with your manager?

She gave a curt nod, and craned her neck to motion over a fortysomething Asian man, who trotted obediently to her workstation. If she was at all frustrated with me, I couldn’t tell.

“William, this woman says someone else paid her property taxes last week and wants to know if we can tell her anything about that.”

William seized the keyboard, entered a few commands, and looked back up at me. “This was paid online.”

“By credit card?”

“We don’t allow credit card payments online. It would have to have been paid from a bank account.”

“Can you tell me the account number?”

“That’s encrypted, for security purposes,” he said. “We don’t have access to that information.”

I sighed. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, or to ask. I was about to thank William and the patient blonde clerk for their time, when I thought of something else: “You said eight hundred and something dollars? That’s a lot more than I paid last time.”

“Did you claim the basic grant?” asked the blonde. She turned to look it up, but I knew she was right. In a failing attempt to slow a booming housing market, people who actually reside in their Vancouver homes are entitled to generous tax refunds. Mine typically came to around five hundred or so dollars, but it seemed my benefactor hadn’t availed himself of this option. A few clicks later, the blonde confirmed my suspicion.

“I live at this address,” I said, deploying the driver’s licence once more.

“Do you have your receipt?” asked William.

I closed my eyes. “No, because I didn’t pay this bill.”

“I’m afraid we can’t refund any payments made in error without documentation provided by the property owner,” recited William, as though this situation arose all the time, or at least had been covered in training. I couldn’t blame him. Obviously, the city of Vancouver couldn’t remain solvent if it indiscriminately refunded every grant that anonymous burglar-patrons neglected to claim for their beneficiaries, and so City Hall was wise to plan for this contingency.

Nevertheless, I threw up my hands in frustration. “So I need documentation to get information that I only need because I don’t have any documentation.” I wasn’t even addressing William or the blonde, and I didn’t even know what I wanted to get out of this exchange, or could. I was literally fighting City Hall.

“Is there anything else we can help you with?” asked the blonde after a pause of probably some carefully calculated length. I peeked over my shoulder; the line had grown slightly in the past few minutes.

“No,” I said, “that’s all.”

Back at my apartment, I climbed the single flight of stairs to my suite, and froze as I turned the corner. The door to my unit was ajar. I stood motionless for a few seconds, silently cursing the idiot neighbours who let anyone follow them into the building. To hell with it, I thought; when one’s own home stops being safe, it’s time to get the police involved. I turned the corner, out of view of my suite, and pulled my phone out, when I had second thoughts. By the time the police showed up, the intruder would be gone; and whatever it was he wanted from me, creating a scene in the hallway of an apartment building probably didn’t factor into his plans. I invoked the camera app on my phone and rounded the corner again, slowly, hoping that I could get a clear shot of my visitor before he noticed me. I didn’t have Harsha Gill’s ready audience, but I had nothing but time to figure out how to get a photograph viewed by the right people.

Quietly, I reached for the knob, when the door shuddered with a few quick thuds, and swung open. Startled, I dropped my phone. Clearly, I wasn’t cut out for having people enter my home without my knowledge. A stranger peered out, as surprised by me as I was by him. He wasn’t dark, fortyish, or impaired by an injured arm. He wasn’t making any attempt to conduct his work discreetly. He was fifty or so, balding, and surrounded by an array of tools.

He stood up straight to greet me. “You must be Kathleen,” he said. I nodded; close enough. “Your landlady let me in. I’ll be twenty minutes or so, and then I’ll give you your new key.”

“Great,” I said absently, and stepped over his toolbox. So Louise had managed to summon a locksmith right away. This should have tempered my anger with her, but I was feeling childish: I wanted to stay angry with her and now I was angry that she couldn’t even indulge me on that front. I stomped over to the fridge, grabbed a can of beer, and set it on the coffee table as I opened my laptop to my check my recent banking activity. My account number and a hidden password appeared in the textboxes. I cursed myself silently. I had long known that someone with a fraction of my expertise could easily obtain all passwords that had ever been entered into a browser window; someone with access to my laptop wouldn’t even have had to do that much to gain one-time access to my account. Years earlier, when I occasionally worked in coffeeshops and libraries, I’d taken more precautions, but in recent months I’d gotten lazy and I’d assumed that physical locks and keys – two of each! – would provide ample protection. I changed my password as soon as the site granted me access, but I wondered if any security measures I took from this point on would be pointless. An entire adulthood of locking up behind me, to say nothing of advanced formal training on the very topic of online security, hadn’t stood up to a charismatic stranger holding a basket of laundry.

I held my breath as my account data loaded. The balances of my chequing and savings account were larger than I expected, but then I remembered the severance payment that had accompanied my final paycheque. The only withdrawals since Manny Thomas’s visit were two debit payments, one for a delivery of pizza and another of Chinese food, both of which I remembered consuming.

I stared at the screen for a few seconds, trying to make sense of it. In Calgary, and more recently over the phone, Harsha had told me that six months after losing her wallet, its contents appeared to have been used only once, outside a gas station near the Calgary airport – and then, only under duress. Aside from the few dollars that had been in her wallet when it had been taken from her, Harsha wasn’t a dime poorer than she’d been before the theft. And I was a few hundred dollars richer. And when Manny had called me at my father’s house, he seemed to be offering me additional payment for giving up trying to find his wife and children. Whoever had used our identities wanted something other than money. But what?

I closed the laptop, feeling no relief. I didn’t know what I’d expected, or even what I’d hoped to see in scrolling through the list of recent transactions. A chunk of money missing or a series of charges on my credit card would indicate a reportable crime. It was considerably less clear what I was to make of a building manager helping a stranger with a basket of laundry, a gift from an unlikely philanthropist at City Hall, and a growing sense that I was no longer in control of my life.

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