MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 19

Carol Patterson had left work by the time I phoned Abbeydale Primary. I left my name and phone number with the school’s receptionist, along with an instruction for Carol to phone me at her earliest convenience. I wanted to hear firsthand what she had told Raffi, but it could wait another day, and it would take me that long to phone the seventy or so Pattersons listed in Calgary, anyway.

That left Amy Blenheim. I’d left her for last, hoping inspiration would strike; but a few hours of putting off thinking about her, followed by a half hour of thinking about her quite deliberately, left me no more enlightened as to how to proceed. Of all the players I’d enlisted to help me figure out the identity – and the fate – of Harsha Gill’s imposter, she seemed to be the one closest to its centre. On a whim, I’d checked the Heartland of Alberta website after reading Dowry, and my browser had returned a generic error. The website wasn’t just down; it was gone. But Amy had sent Harsha her book, so it stood to reason that she wanted to help. The only problem was that I had no idea what I was looking for, let alone what she could tell me.

By mid-afternoon, halfway into my third beer of the day, I reasoned that I wasn’t likely to do my best thinking, or best talking, in that state; by the time I was confident I was sober, it was dinner time in Calgary; and then after that, too late to disturb a stranger. I killed the rest of the evening mucking about online, and then watching TV, and when neither of those shook anything loose from the depths of my subconscious, headed to bed, hoping something would come to me in a dream.

Nothing did.

My phone, generally inert except for the predictable mid-week evening call from my father, buzzed at a quarter past eleven the next morning: Carol Patterson, dutifully returning my call, at once effusive and apologetic. She’d called the newspaper reporter, she told me after assuring me, with the enthusiastic sincerity bred into kindergarten teachers, how nice it was to hear from me again; and she’d assumed that he’d phone me – she would have phoned me herself, but she didn’t have my number and I wasn’t in the phone book – but Gary’s best friend, a little boy named Dylan, had gotten a letter from Gary, who’d moved to Ottawa, and Dylan was so excited to get a real letter in the mail, and he’d brought it to the class to share.

“A letter,” I repeated.

“Yes,” Carol continued, “it was obvious that his mum – Gary’s – helped him with it, but then he signed it with his name. And then we wrote a letter back to Gary – the kids all know the alphabet now, and they can all write their names, too, so it was a nice exercise – we were going to put it in the mail, but we didn’t have Gary’s address and Dylan’s mum did, so we just gave it to him. They didn’t give us the envelope,” she added, almost as an afterthought.

“Right,” I said, just to say something.

“So they’re all right, all of them,” Carol went on. “I’m sorry to have wasted your time, you and Raffi, but you can see why I was concerned, when they left so suddenly, and then I read about someone looking for an Indian mum and two little children, one a boy the same age as Gary, who disappeared right around the time I last saw him.”

I squeezed my eyes shut, and suddenly remembered something. “You said they went to India.”

“Did I? I just assumed they did, because we get that fairly often, kids with families back there that go back for months at a time.”

“The secretary said so.”

“Melanie. Right, right. Well, they never told me.”

“And she said she wasn’t sure if the father volunteered that information or was just prompted.” I was remembering it now, but I didn’t know how – if – any of that was relevant. I went over what I knew: Gary Thomas’s mother, Anoushka, was not Harsha Gill’s imposter. And yet, somehow, the imposter ended up with Anoushka’s car, or at least her licence plate. And, really, that was it. I didn’t even know how Gary Thomas and his little brother were connected to the two children in the car I’d run into in Calgary.

“Hold on,” I said. “The letter – did it say who’d moved to Ottawa? The whole family, including the father? Or just the mother and the boys?”

There was a brief pause. “Gosh, you know, I didn’t think to – wait a minute, I have the letter here.” There was a rustling of papers as she retrieved the correct one, and the next few sentences tumbled out in a hurry. “‘Hi from my new house in Ottawa…Ottawa is far away and it took us three whole days to drive here…I go to a new school that has six regular swings and one that’s a tire, and also monkey bars and two slides, a straight one and a curly one. I miss you very much.’ And that’s it…yeah, nothing in there about the parents at all. Why, is this important?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted as I jotted down these details on the back of a stray hydro bill. My instincts to challenge, to bluff, to lie took leave of me completely in the presence of the kindergarten teacher. It was a welcome feeling after dealing with Raffi and Harsha, and for a fleeting instant I felt a pang of envy for her students, in the daily presence of her soothing voice, her easy smile. It pained me to tamper in any way with such openness, such trust, and I chose my next questions with care. “You just wrote the letter?” I prodded. “You didn’t talk to Gary on the phone, or on Skype or anything?”

“Oh, no, I don’t have any computers in my classroom. A lot of parents ask me about that, and I tell them, the more I have them sitting in front of screens during the day, the more they’ll be running around when they get home. And I would know, I raised three boys myself.”

“Right,” I said. “I just thought, it might be fun for the kids to talk to their friend.”

“Maybe. Or I could suggest it to Dylan’s mum.”

“You know,” I hedged, “I work with computers for a living. I can help set this up, if you want. If not with you, then with Dylan’s mother, what did you say her name was, uh…”

“Amberson,” Carol supplied. I felt a twinge of guilt at the ease of drawing out this piece of information. “I’m sure she’d appreciate that. I can’t give you her number, but I can give her yours, if that’s okay with you.”

“Certainly.” I scribbled Amberson below the description of Gary’s school. “Anyway, thanks, Carol. I’m glad I got a chance to talk to you. This puts my mind at ease.”

“Well, I’m glad you called, and I’m glad I could help. Like I said, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to reach you earlier. You take care, and next time you’re in town, don’t be shy about dropping by.”

“I won’t,” I said, but only because shyness had nothing to do with it.

Mentioning Skype to Carol made me realize that I had no idea how much midday phone calls to Calgary cost, so I decided to switch to Google’s phone for the duration of my research. There were three Ambersons listed in Calgary, and one lived a few blocks from Abbeydale Primary. I dialed that one first. No one answered, but a message helpfully informed me that Julia, Gordon, and Dylan weren’t home at the moment, but that if I left my name and number, they would return my call as soon as possible. I hung up before I had a chance.

So I was going to have to call Amy Blenheim. Perhaps if I put in the effort, I could come up with some excuse to delay that call further, but the longer I put it off, the likelier it was that she’d have read Harsha’s most recent column, with its triumphant announcement of its author having located her subject. In the light of day, and fuelled by caffeine rather than booze, all I could think was to hope that Heartland of Alberta employed at least one person other than Manny Thomas, and that through some combination of small talk and ego-stroking, Ms. Blenheim would provide me with their names. Recognizing that complimenting a terrible writer on a terrible book was outside my comfort zone, I did a bit of research online, and jotted down a story and some jargon on a set of envelopes that I spread out on the table in front of me.

She answered on the fourth ring. “Helloholdonaminuteokay?,” she greeted me. I heard some clanging in the background, followed by a high-pitched squeal or two, and then, “Jayden! Put that down. Destiny.

“Destiny?” I repeated.

“My three year old,” she explained.

“Oh, that’s a fun age,” I said.

“That’s for sure!” She gave a brittle laugh. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

“That’s because I didn’t give it to you. My name is Kathleen Kovalevsky.” I waited a beat. When Amy didn’t answer. I continued: “A few weeks ago I was in a car accident with a woman named Harsha Gill. She has a column in the Calgary Trail, and wrote about –”

“Oh! And the cover model for my novel was there. Or someone who looked like her. Was it her?”

“Yeah, it was her.”

“Oh, wow.” She didn’t speak for a few seconds, and only the children’s voices assured me that the connection hadn’t been lost. “That’s so…I don’t know.”

“Yeah, it’s something.” I was beginning to feel like Roger, awkwardly filling space because silence didn’t seem appropriate. Was this how he had felt talking to me, trying to forge a connection where none had existed? I mulled that over, but stopped short of feeling sympathy for him. To hell with Roger, and to hell with Stratitech.

I shook my head, snapping myself out of that train of thought. “Anyway, I was wondering what you could tell me about her. My sister runs an agency and this woman, this model, caught her eye; Meg thinks she could get some interesting work for her.”

“Oh. Oh! I don’t know if I can help you. The cover and all that, they took care of that themselves.”

“Including the models? They didn’t contract that out?”

“No, that was something they were really proud of: that Heartland was one hundred percent Canadian, locally owned and operated. All of the people on the covers were real Albertans. They do everything in-house: editing, design, printing.”

I thought of Clifford Anderson’s changing career, and Mr. Bhatnagar’s forbidding his daughter to be with him seven chapters before being blindsided by the existence of their romance. I was willing to believe they hadn’t contracted out the editing, but not that any editing was actually taking place in-house.

“But you know, I just read Harsha Gill’s latest column; apparently she found the woman. You can probably get her info that way.”

I mouthed a four-letter word, but forced back a smile. “I thought of that, but you know what? Harsha says the woman wants her privacy, and to be honest, I don’t blame her. Lots of nuts out there. But my sister wants your cover girl for work. Who did you deal with at the publisher’s? If I could get in touch with them, they can probably give my sister the info.”

“Oh, sure, that makes sense,” Amy said. I released a breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding. “It was Lisa something. I – Destiny! If you don’t finish your soup, you’re not going to get a cookie…I know, Jayden, just a minute and I’ll get you some more juice. Sorry. Where was I? Oh, right, Lisa. I don’t remember her last name offhand – oh, wait, think I saved her emails. Do you want me to get them?”

“That’d be great.”

“I – hold on, I’m just going to refill Jayden’s bottle, okay? I do that, and I get another few minutes I can talk to you without having to worry about him.”

“Of course.” I leaned back in my chair, and idly flipped through my copy of Dowry.

Two minutes later, Amy’s voice came back on the line. “Here it is. Willingdon. Her email is lisaw at heartlandofalberta dot ca. And the phone number, ends with ‘heart’, I have it somewhere here, hold on...” I did, and she supplied the missing digits.

“Great, that’s perfect. My sister will really appreciate that.”

“No problem.”

“It was just her you dealt with? No one else?”

“Just her.”

I felt like that was significant, but I couldn’t place how. There was a second or two of silence, and I tried to think of what else I could ask her. I stalled with, “I really enjoyed the book, by the way.”

She gave a self-conscious laugh. “That’s very nice of you to say.”

“No, really,” I lied. “I read a lot of romance myself, and most of it is set in the US or in Europe.” It probably was, though I wouldn’t swear to it; when Amy didn’t correct me, I continued, “So it’s nice to read about Canada for a change.”

“My husband works in the oil rigs, and he’s away often, so that’s where I got the idea,” Amy explained. “Of course, now with two little ones, I don’t have much time to write.”

“Of course.”

I was losing her. “So what’s involved in getting a book published?” I asked, just to keep the conversation active.

“Oh!” Amy laughed. “You know, Heartland did everything, literally everything for me. I’d heard of them before – I knew they did Canadian romance and a lot of their work has ethnic protagonists – and I called them before I’d written a word, and they said that what I had in mind sounded right up their alley. They gave me an advance, half when I sent them the first few chapters, and half after I’d finished. Oh, that was another thing – direct deposit when I gave them my banking info and stuff, so I didn’t even have to worry about any of that either. I was surprised they did that, since they’re a small operation and I’m not even an employee.”

“Right.” I filed away this last bit. I suspected I had a pretty good idea of what “stuff” involved. “May I ask how much the advance was?”

“Five thousand,” Amy replied. “Plus royalties. I didn’t get any of those, though,” she said matter-of-factly. “The book didn’t sell very well, and now it’s out of print.”

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