MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 20

After Amy signed off, I opened my laptop to type up what she and Carol had told me while it was fresh in my mind. The exercise evoked some questions as well, and I included them as they came to me.

CAROL PATTERSON, Abbeydale Elementary

Received letter from Gary Thomas, given to his friend Dylan Amberson

Claims GT and brother are in Ottawa – with Mom? Dad? GT writes that he is at a school; gives description of playground. (Monkey bars, swings (6? + tire), “curly and straight” slides. Is there a school in Ottawa with such a playground?) ASK FOR COPY OF LETTER

Doesn’t have address for GT. Dylan’s mother (Julia) does. ASK HER

AMY BLENHEIM, author of Dowry

$5000 advance for book (half before completed??).

Gave publisher (Heartland of Alberta) banking info. (More ID theft?? How to find out?)

Dealt with Lisa Willingdon ([email protected]) CONTACT HER

HoA doesn’t contract out services. Dealt directly with HG imposter?

HoA website is down. Technical error, or gone? (If gone, how to contact LW?)

I squinted at what I’d written, and then added another line to Carol’s entry:

Julia – working with Anoushka Thomas? Manny Thomas? Both? HG imposter? Some combo?

I reread the two paragraphs again, and then added a third:

HARSHA GILL, blogger, columnist for Calgary Trail

Wallet stolen last year. Credit cards never used. Filed police report on ID theft. No progress. (TRUE? HOW TO FIND OUT?)

Changed her mind about ID thief between mailing and receipt of book. Why?

Bribed by MT? (Why? How much?)

Claimed she didn’t give MT my name. How did he get it?

From when I emailed HoA?

HG imposter told him after car accident?

HG is lying?

That last bullet point, of course, applied to Harsha’s entire entry – indeed, to her entire career – and I wondered if there was any point in trying to get anything else out of her. But I was willing to believe she’d been paid off: that was the one aspect of her story consistent not only with her opportunistic nature, but with my own experience – and with Amy’s. Manny Thomas, or whoever was behind this, had money to burn. He’d paid a four-figure advance for an incoherent manuscript that appeared to have been published as-is and had sold few if any copies. And that was without taking into consideration the costs of production. How was that investment paying off? Harsha’s was easy to figure out: whatever she’d received was hush money. But I was no closer than I’d been on Monday to knowing what the payment of my property taxes had bought my benefactor.

After a minute, I added another entry, just for the sake of completeness.

RAPHAEL (RAFFI) GALIANO, crime reporter for Calgary Trail

Friend (?) of HG

HG asked for his help in finding ID thief, didn’t tell him after column published.

That second line led me second-guess myself, and I dialed the Trail’s number. I got as far as the switchboard before realizing an abrasive reporter wasn’t going to give me anything unless I had something to offer in return. I mulled over how to proceed, and after a few minutes, I redialed, punched in the usual sequence of numbers, and I got Raffi’s abrupt greeting.

“Hi, Raffi. Kathleen from Vancouver again. I don’t want to waste your time, but I don’t know if Harsha hasn’t found her ID thief, or if she’s found her and decided not to tell you. I was wondering if –”

“Hi, Kathleen.” I waited out a brief pause. “Yeah, I checked with my police source. No update on the Gill file.”

“Okay, so either Harsha hasn’t found her ID thief, or has found her but hasn’t reported it to the cops. Or, she’s found her, reported her to the cops, and you’re lying to me.”

“Jesus.” He blew sharply into the phone. “Listen, there’s no point in me lying to you. If I were lying to you, you’d find out by the weekend at the latest, when the Trail ran my story. But there’s no story.”

“I don’t mean lying about writing a piece on it. I mean lying about there being an update on the file.”

“Christ. I’m a reporter. This would make an interesting story. Why the fuck wouldn’t I write about it?”

“Because Harsha’s paying you off. I hear she recently came into a bit of extra money.”

There was a silence so complete that I knew I had him. I counted it out: seven seconds that felt like seventy. Finally he spoke, and the edge had left his voice: “Who the fuck are you?”

I smiled. “I’m another victim of identity theft. After I met Harsha and agreed to help her find the woman who stole her identity, someone gained his way into my home, a second floor apartment, and through a careful search of my paperwork, found out enough to impersonate me. But not to take any money: to keep me silent.”

“Serious?”

“Completely.”

“And you think this is related to Har’s case?”

“I know it is.”

“How?”

I let him wait out my silence. “Harsha hasn’t reported anything new to the police, or to you?”

“No, I told you –”

“Well, if she does, I’ll be the first to know, right? You have my number, right?” I didn’t wait for an answer. “Let me give it to you again.” I carefully enunciated all ten digits. “Maybe I’ll hear from you soon.”

“Oh, fu-”

Laughing, I disconnected the call before I could hear the rest.

My next call was to Heartland of Alberta. I had no real plan in mind, figuring I’d hang up if anyone answered, and come up with a cover story to tell another time. As I’d suspected, I hadn’t needed a story at all: after three rings, an automated message informed me that the number that I’d dialed had been disconnected and had not been forwarded. I felt at once restless and inert, filled with an energy I had no idea how to direct. Increasingly, Heartland of Alberta was feeling like a dead end – an entire organization shut down soon after I’d learned of its existence – but I knew it was the key to finding four (five? six? more?) missing Calgarians.

Frustration engulfed me, and I didn’t know what else I could do in my current state. I put on a record, fixed myself a sandwich and helped myself to a beer, reasoning that while it wasn’t quite noon yet, if it was acceptable to read a fluff novel while enjoying a glass of wine, surely it made sense to write one – well, not quite, but close enough – while partaking of a can of beer. The justification, even confined to my own head, came off as strained and desperate, but I pushed my reservations aside, and sipped a drink while I pitched a book to Lisa Willingdon.

The Heartland of Alberta site was still down, likely permanently, but I remembered the thumbnails of dark-haired women posing with a single European-looking man – or several from the same family tree – and decided to stick with the formula that had brought several authors success. My heroine was Isabella, a peasant from rural Italy who aspires to be a Hollywood star, earning the ire of her farmer parents who both fear for her safety in America and resent her for abandoning the family business. However, during a snowstorm, her plane is diverted to Calgary, and without money to continue her journey, Isabella ends up plying her old trade: working on a ranch, though this one owned by a dashing young widower who immediately captures her heart.

That was all I was able to think of offhand, and when the resolution to the drama didn’t appear at the bottom of my beer, I gave up trying to flesh out the plot and instead typed out a paragraph promising a complete manuscript if Heartland of Alberta wanted to see one. The publisher had come recommended by someone I’d met in my writers’ group, I wrote, and seemed a natural fit.

I ended my query there: I was just trying to establish contact, and with the publisher’s website down, the best I could hope for was that the website’s administrator – Manny? Lisa? Someone else? – had neglected to deactivate the mail servers, and that I’d get a reply from a human being.

I created a webmail account under a new name (the latter took me longer than I’d have thought, as I wanted something elegant but not preposterously so; eventually I settled upon “Regina Corrigan”, a subtle nod to the colleague who’d set me on this path), pasted my pitch into the textbox, and fired it off to [email protected] I had barely stood up to stretch when a new bolded line appeared in my inbox, informing me that delivery to the recipient had failed permanently.

That left the phone as my only option for reaching both Lisa Willingdon and Julia Amberson. I settled in front of the television, and metabolized my beer while canned laughter informed me I was supposed to be amused. An hour or so later, I switched off the set, with no memory of what I’d just watched.

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