MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 18

I woke up suddenly on Tuesday morning, fast asleep to completely alert in an instant, the day stretching wide and blank in front of me. I grabbed my phone from the night table: six forty-five. My body’s inability to adapt to what the world required of it perplexed and irritated me. For weeks, as I’d sluggishly gone through the motions at work, I’d needed my alarm to tear me from slumber, and I’d crawl out of bed close to eight, half-consciously meandering through my routine only because I couldn’t summon the energy to deviate from it. Dress-work-eat-sleep, and on Fridays, alternately cook-clean or travel, followed by the weekly card games and conversations with my father. Fridays, I was realizing only now, were the only days I had to be fully present, the only days I couldn’t idly allow my life to happen to me.

Today, though, the elements of the day stood out in sharp relief: the sounds of traffic were crisper than usual, the colours brighter, the edges of shapes sharper. Trying to get back to sleep was pointless. I wandered into the living room and turned on the record player, made my way into the kitchen, and fixed myself a pot of coffee and a pile of leftover pancakes.

Fifteen hours to fill. Again the prospect overwhelmed me. I felt more focused than I had in weeks, but that only served to shine a brighter light on the recent targets of my attention: the phone call to my father; the paid property taxes; the visitor with the laundry basket. An unspecified number of days just like this one lying ahead. A job market, now open to me, that overwhelmed me to the point of paralysis. And my aging father, always a source of vague background worry to me, now a concern in the foreground but that was no easier to pin down or address for it.

I finished my pancakes and washed and dried my plate and cutlery by hand, polishing them to a shine before replacing them. The table looked mostly clean, but I went over it with a sponge as well. If I kept this up, at least I’d have a clean apartment for the duration of my unemployment. I smiled wryly, and then remembered the Employment Insurance forms from Roger and Sanjay. Might as well fill those out now, I thought, and I did, pleased that some of the questions required some research. I hadn’t, for instance, committed my social insurance number to memory, and so I had to retrieve my wallet from the counter, dig out the card, and copy down the nine digits, which filled another minute or so. But then that act inspired me, on a whim, to dig through the paperwork that I’d filed the previous Friday, and find my latest tax return, at the top of which those same digits were prominently displayed.

Angry with myself, I shoved the EI forms aside. This whole exercise was futile. I desperately needed a distraction from all this, but all this was my entire life, and everything led irrevocably back to it. What I needed was a drink. It wasn’t even half past seven yet; but, I reasoned, usually I was sleeping at this time of the morning, and is sleeping really any less productive than drinking? Certainly not.

I opened the fridge, only to remember that I’d depleted the supply the previous night. I cursed to myself, and returned to check my sock drawer to see if I had any spare beer cans I hadn’t returned to the fridge after my father’s visit.

A few seconds of shuffling aside socks didn’t reveal any, but the search was far from fruitless. Wedged under a pair of thick winter socks was an even better semi-distraction, and I retreated with it to the living room sofa.

Fatima Bhatnagar, the heroine of Dowry, was the beautiful unmarried daughter from a wealthy northern Indian family that had somehow or other – the details were sketchy – built its fortune in the Alberta oil sands. When her father was called to the outskirts of Fort McMurray to oversee his investment, he brought Fatima with him, as he did not trust her many suitors to “behave in a manner befitting a woman of her beauty and wealth.” Precisely what that manner was, or whether such a manner would be appropriate around a poorer, uglier woman, author Annamaria Bellini nee Amy Blenheim did not say, and I assume the reader was not meant to ask. The important thing was that Fatima Bhatnagar had been temporarily installed in a trailer in Northern Alberta, far away from any tempters or temptees – with, as her father was to discover far too late, the exceptions of hundreds of young barrel-chested men toiling shirtlessly in the oil rigs.

“Who would have guessed that this barren landscape would prove such fertile ground for forbidden love?” mused the narrator. All three people who read this book, I answered silently. I was hardly a connoisseur of romance fiction, but surely most of it wasn’t this terrible. Why no bookstore or library had stocked this volume was obvious; less so, why anyone had bothered to publish it in the first place. A half-thought formed, but I couldn’t anchor it, so I abandoned it for the time being. But I was beginning to suspect Dowry was an important piece of the puzzle involving the identity theft of Harsha Gill and the disappearance of Anoushka Thomas.

Back outside Fort McMurray, there was no shortage of investors, project managers, and engineers working the oil rigs; but to Mr. Bhatnagar’s horror, Fatima had fallen for a lowly mechanic. Fifty pages later, Cliff was described as a construction worker, and I wondered if it was the young man’s broader skill set, as well as his muscular arms and chest, that had attracted his mysterious and exotic lover. However, some pages later, he was back to being a mechanic, so I concluded that his temporary career change was a result of poor editing, nothing more. Clifford Anderson was a mechanic. He was, we would be reminded a dozen or so times over the next hundred and fifty five pages, very, very good with his hands.

This went on for some time, with Fatima and Cliff meeting in secret, managing to hide their relationship from Mr. Bhatnagar – here I flipped back a few pages and confirmed that some chapters earlier, Mr. Bhatnagar had not only been well aware of the forbidden romance, but had been the one to explicitly forbid it – by the end of the book, no character would be revealed to be suffering from amnesia, so I figured it was the author who was thus afflicted – and staving off the advances of the more brutish workers, including the handsome but ruthless Indian investor who had paid the site a visit in chapter sixteen. “Nothing would temper the spice of their romance,” the reader was assured, and similar symbols were flogged in the descriptions of at four least separate trysts (one, “as fiery as turmeric”; a later one, which took place while Mr. Bhatnagar was out of town, occurred at a more leisurely pace, with “all the sweetness of saffron”) before I stopped counting. I also made a mental note to reacquaint myself with saffron, which I hadn’t remembered as being particularly sweet.

After twenty chapters, Fatima finally confronted her father, who at this juncture again knew nothing of the relationship, and announced that she and Cliff were to wed. Mr. Bhatnagar yelled and threatened, and told his daughter she must choose between the mechanic and her family’s fortune. Naturally, she chose the former without hesitation, “never for a minute considering forsaking her destiny.” If there were moments of regret, we never heard of them, and we next encountered Cliff and Fatima in the epilogue, cradling their newborn child, “a daughter with skin the colour of chai tea.” I assumed this was a reference to the latte version, given Cliff’s contribution to the gene pool. The book ended there, and in spite of myself I found myself wondering what would become of the trio; if her husband’s love and the chai-coloured daughter would be enough for a woman disowned by her family, or if three years later she would end up in a bathtub with a bottle of sleeping pills and a flask of whiskey.

The memory hit me in the gut, unawares, and I set the book aside. I’d picked it up to take my mind off the last few weeks. But it wasn’t just the past few weeks I had to contend with. It was my entire life.

I stood up, stretched, and turned the record player off. I checked the time: it wasn’t even noon yet, but it was probably customary to enjoy a drink or two while reading escapist fiction. And did it really make a difference whether I enjoyed the drink before or after? And –

I shook my head. I didn’t need to explain myself to anyone. I grabbed my jacket and headed out the door.

Halfway through my second can of beer, still too early to kill another hour or so for lunch, I realized I had some more reading to catch up on. I opened my laptop, pulled up a familiar site, and scrolled through the most recent installment of Harsha Gill’s fictitious life, “The Power of the Pen.”

“Someone once said that a good writer will do anything for a story,” opened the column, “but somehow, I doubt that someone was a freelancer whose paycheques don’t always cover rent and bills – let alone a smashed headlight and a dented bumper. Believe me – no one, not even an absentminded writer short on inspiration, plans to damage her sole means of transportation for the sake of a column – or even, as it turns out, two columns…” I smiled at the gall of it. This was fiction, I knew; moreover, it was fiction composed by someone who’d lied to me and set me up. But it was infinitely more compelling than the novel I’d just read, and I found myself utterly taken in by the drama. The key to lying is in the details, and Harsha had accounted for all of them – including, halfway through the blog post, a low-resolution photo of herself, grinning broadly as she held a silver pen beside her face.

Following the accident itself, summarized Harsha, was the second blow: the realization that she’d left her silver pen – “which would fetch a small fortune in any store, but which, more importantly, had seen three generations of Gills through writing careers” – with the witness; and in Harsha’s absentmindedness, she’d bungled the witness’s contact information. That’s where she’d left her readers the previous month, and they’d come through for her. In particular, she wanted to thank the anonymous woman who’d put her in touch with the witness, as well as the fan who’d started the indiegogo campaign to raise the reward money – and of course, to the ninety people who’d contributed, which had brought the reward tally to a respectable six hundred and twenty-two dollars.

It wasn’t until this line I scrambled through the archives in search of the one verifiable claim that Harsha had made, and sure enough, “Help Reunite a Writer With Her Pen” had accrued over three hundred dollars over the past few weeks. I puzzled over this for a few seconds before remembering that Harsha herself had offered three hundred dollars of her own.

I read on: “Not everyone is suited to the public life, and I’ve always been mindful of the fact that the individuals who provide fodder for my column have lives of their own, and are not just supporting characters in mine,” Harsha continued, piously justifying her decision not to publish the witness’s name or photograph. “And now that she’s been found, out of further respect for her privacy, I’ve taken down the sketch provided by the very talented Ray Doherty. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, there’s no delete button on the internet, but this is the least I can do for a very private person who took a few minutes out of her day to do a good deed.”

I set my laptop on the coffee table, closed my eyes, and leaned back. I was still holding my beer, and found myself staring at it, wondering if any of this made sense sober. Probably not, I told myself, and grabbed the laptop back again to scroll through the comments. There weren’t many on this post: the usual praise from the commenters, and some halfhearted debate over whether Harsha owed her readers identifying details about the woman whose identification they’d funded. There was nothing from anyone who’d actually met the “witness” and had conflicting information to report.

I put my laptop back on the table, and lay down to think about what I knew. I knew the entire pen story had been fabricated. I knew that some three hundred dollars and change had been raised by a bunch of Calgarians, who, for reasons I wasn’t particularly interested in contemplating, had considered this a worthy cause. And that was all, really.

I couldn’t will the picture into focus on my own, and my last conversation with Harsha – and everything I knew about her – indicated that she wouldn’t help me unless there was something in it for her. I suspected the author of Dowry could provide some answers, but at the moment I didn’t even know what the questions were.

There was someone who could settle one thing, though. I picked up my laptop again, poked around for a few seconds on the Calgary Trail’s site, and wasn’t surprised when I didn’t find a second reference to Harsha Gill’s imposter. I grabbed my phone, scrolled through my call logs, and navigated the menu of options until the familiar, abrasive voice greeted me.

“Galiano.”

“Hi, there, Raffi. Kathleen Kovalevsky here.”

A brief pause, and then: “Harsha’s Vancouver friend. To what do I owe this call?”

“Harsha. What can you tell me about her case?”

“Ibegyerpardon?”

I shifted in my seat. “Her latest column: she says she found her pen, and, as you know, there’s no pen. So I figure she’s found whoever’s been pretending to be Harsha Gill, and that she’s turned that person over to the appropriate authorities, and that you’re on the story, because she’d promised –”

“Hold on, hold on.” I heard some tapping, and I waited it out. Then, a few seconds later: “Son of a bitch, six hundred and twenty-two dollars.”

“This is the first you’ve heard of this.”

“Yeah, yeah, first I’ve heard. Jesus!” I heard him slap the table. “People getting their fucking lives stolen every fucking day, and hardly any of them ever get caught; and she finds one through a fucking blog – this changes the whole game, and she doesn’t tell me? After I –”

I cut him off before he could continue. “Well, she wrote a story about a missing pen. Not a stolen identity.”

“I don’t reveal names – sources, victims, anything!” Raffi exclaimed. “She knows that! She can keep her –” He paused, seeming to realize that he was in a newsroom. “She can keep her fucking storytime column,” he said, quietly and evenly this time, “and I write a piece about an anonymous victim of identity theft, a little bit about the power of social media and crowdsourcing. No one makes the connection, because Har’s already written a different story about the same thing. But a week later, what’s there to say?”

“You don’t have to convince me,” I said.

“And the other one,” he continued, as though I hadn’t spoken, “with the kid in kindergarten, they’re all right too, nothing to see here. Last time I let Harsha –”

I bolted upright. “Hold on, what?”

“The teacher we met. She called me. She didn’t call you? Anyway, sounds like the three of them, mom and two kids, just left dad and moved somewhere else. What did she say? – oh yeah: ‘Circumstances were a bit unusual’” – at this he chuckled mirthlessly – “Yeah, unusual, that was it – but everyone’s okay, they’re in Toronto or something, sorry to waste your time.”

“Toronto,” I repeated. I made a mental note to get in touch with Carol. The licence plate was evidence of a connection between Anoushka Thomas, apparently alive and well in Toronto, and the woman with Harsha’s identity, about whom I knew little more than I had when the car I’d been driving had collided with hers.

“– and I always tell them the same thing,” Raffi was ranting, “I’m a reporter, not a cop, not a private investigator. I report crimes, I don’t solve them. But this time -”

I let him vent. My next call could wait as long as Raffi was on the line. When he finished, I apologized to him for wasting his time, and held the phone away from my ear as his receiver slammed into the cradle.

The next set of digits got me a voicemail message, and I modulated my voice to a formal singsong. “Hi, there, Harsha,” I cooed. “Kathleen here. It’s been a busy week, but I finally had a chance to read your column. Fantastic work, as always. And great job, catching your identity thief. So who tipped you off in the end? A friend? Coworker? Sister? Did they have any idea?...Anyway, that’s not important. I was just thinking, though, since I met the woman, I probably have some details that can help the cops get a conviction. I know: they can place me at the police station at the time you made your police report. But I thought about it, and if you go with the story that you weren’t the one filing that report, that’ll implicate you, too, since there’s now a written record of you yourself having been in that accident... Oh, well. Where was I? Oh, right: I can call them with information, but they’ll probably be more willing to help if they realize we’re working together. So can you call me, give me the case number for the police report? If I don’t hear back from you by the end of the day, I’ll probably just give them a call myself. I’m sure they’ll be helpful: they want this person punished as much as you do. Anyway, talk to you later!” I cut the call, and only when I’d set the phone on the table did I realize that my facial muscles had been contracted, freezing my lips into a phony grin.

It was less than five minutes before my phone rang. I stiffened my expression back into a smile before I answered. “Harsha! Thanks for calling back so quickly. Must have been a busy week. How are you doing?”

“What the hell, Kathleen.” I could feel the venom through the network. Unbidden, a memory of the conference I’d attended on the way to the car accident surfaced: the well-coiffed meeting facilitator approvingly observing our role play: “That’s very good, Kathleen. You have an agitated customer, and by responding calmly and slowly to him, you influence him to respond in kind.” I bit my lip to stifle a laugh.

“I beg your pardon?” I said. “In your latest column you said that you found your pen, and since the pen was just a ruse to find an identity thief, I can only assume –”

“I told you, I don’t care anymore. And it’s my stuff she stole, not yours, so why do you care?”

“But your column –”

“I didn’t find anyone!” I could hear her breathing on the other end of the line, sharp and uneven. “Okay? All the tips I got were shit, and no one was draining my bank account or killing my credit rating, so I just cut it short, gave my readers closure, and moved on.”

“And claimed three hundred and twenty-two dollars.”

I heard the breathing slow. “Is that what this is, you want a cut?” Her voice was deeper, smoother, the one I’d heard back in Calgary, after returning from the police station: a liar firmly in control of her story.

I closed my eyes, and there it was: the part that didn’t fit, the part I’d been missing. “There were two weeks left,” I said. “There were two weeks left on the indiegogo campaign. You could have gone another two weeks, collected whatever else extra your suckers were willing to contribute, no extra cost to yourself, and then written the same bullshit column. But you didn’t. You cut the campaign short. Why?”

“I told you!” she yelled. “I’d lost interest! I didn’t care anymore –”

“Then why not lose interest two weeks later? Same result for more money. No, you’re not just uninterested in finding your identity thief. Someone else is very interested in you not finding her.”

There was a long pause. “I’ll split it with you, okay?” she said finally.

Payment of my property taxes, Harsha’s reward money diverted to secure her secret: at this rate, I thought wryly, I wouldn’t ever need another job. I could secure a steady income, and I’d never have to do anything besides confront daily the ghost of a dark, frightened woman who on one cold April afternoon drove off with two small children in a dented car.

And then I remembered Manny’s offer at my father’s house. “He didn’t have to threaten you,” I guessed.

She didn’t reply, and I knew I had it.

“You’re helping cover up something big,” I said.

A pause, and then, flatly: “You don’t know that.”

“What’s he paying you?” I asked quietly.

This time, there was silence for a good thirty seconds, and when Harsha spoke again, it was entirely without affect. “More than I could have raised in two weeks,” she said at last.

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