Around dinnertime, I phoned the Amberson household, and a female voice answered.
“Hello,” I said, pitching my voice to the professional timbre I’d started deploying for these calls. “Am I speaking to Julia Amberson?”
“Clark,” the woman said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s Clark. Julia Clark. Amberson is my husband’s name. Who is this?”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” The error, so early in the conversation, sent a ripple through the exchange, and I found myself mentally scrambling to regain control of it. “Ms. Clark.” I closed my eyes. Where was I? “My name is Kathleen,” I continued. “My son is – was – a friend of Anoushka Thomas’s boy. He misses him very much, and I’m told that you recently made contact with the family.”
There was a pause. “Yes.” Another pause. “Yes, that’s correct.” A few seconds passed before the woman spoke again. “What is your son’s name?”
“My son? His name is Michael.” I cursed myself for not having seen this coming. I’d gotten lazy after my conversations with Carol and Amy, neither of whom had questioned the purity of my motives. That Dylan’s mother had withheld Gary’s address should have alerted me to the fact that I was dealing with someone more cautious.
I’d played this all wrong. There was silence for a few seconds, and I decided that anyone who vetted an ostensibly innocuous call so carefully wouldn’t settle for lies, so I might as tell the truth. Part of it, anyway. I took a deep breath. “I’m calling from Vancouver,” I said. “I - can we start over?” She didn’t reply, but she didn’t hang up, either. “My name is Kathleen Kovalevsky. I don’t live in Calgary. I don’t have any kids. I didn’t know Anoushka Thomas. I don’t know Gary. I told you that because I want information about Anoushka and her boys, but you don’t know me and you’re right to be suspicious of me. I don’t know you and I’m suspicious of you, possibly for the same reason.”
I paused there, trying to figure out what else I needed to include. I heard two voices in the background, a young child’s and a man’s, probably his Dylan and his father.
“Go on,” she prompted.
“A few months ago, I briefly met a woman, an Indian immigrant also with two young children. I didn’t get her name, and I haven’t been able to reach them since. This was around the same time that Gary Thomas suddenly left school. I met Gary’s teacher when looking for this woman, and that’s how I got Anoushka’s name.” I paused suddenly, realizing only then that I’d unwittingly merged the two women into a single character. “And I’ve been trying to find them,” I continued, “because –”
I stopped, mid-sentence, mid-breath. Because what? “Because I’m worried,” I finished weakly. But that wasn’t it, not all of it. “So I’ve been looking.” I paused, trying to figure out what else Julia Clark needed to know. Finally I settled on the basics: “I’ve been looking, and someone, possibly Anoushka Thomas’s husband, wants me to stop. And that’s made me more worried, and as far as I know, you’re the only one who’s claiming to have been in touch with her recently.”
“I see.” I waited a few more seconds, and then: “Listen, can I call you back? You know my number and where I live. I’ll feel more comfortable if I confirm the same for you.”
“Certainly.” I gave a name and address, and disconnected the call. I wasn’t irritated in the least; I idly wondered if I’d even be speaking to Julia Clark if someone like Julia Clark, rather than someone like Louise, had been managing my building. I unplugged my phone from its charger and carried it with me while I poured myself a glass of Coke and grabbed a fistful of potato chips and a bowl of leftover Chinese takeout. I’d have a proper meal with my father soon enough. I was about to give up on Julia Clark when my phone buzzed.
“All right, LinkedIn has a Kathleen Kovalevsky listed at this number and at this address,” she greeted me. “That’s all I found. There’s not much about you online.”
“No, there isn’t,” I agreed. What was there to say to that?
“Well, never mind. I was thinking about what you said, about being worried about Anoushka and her boys. And I’ve been wondering how much to tell you. I still don’t know much about you. But there are a few things that I can tell you that – well, if you’re on the level, maybe they’ll help. And if you’re not, I won’t be telling you anything you don’t already know.”
“That makes sense,” I said. “I appreciate you talking to me, Ms. Clark.”
She didn’t correct my use of the formality. “Okay. Where to begin? I – okay. As you know, Gary is – was – in Dylan’s kindergarten class. They’re both quiet boys, sensitive, so they gravitated toward one another very quickly. Dylan talked about playing with Gary, and asked if he could invite his friend over. Of course I said he could.”
She paused. “So I did what you do, I called his parents, reached his mother, and – she said that week wouldn’t be any good, her husband was out of town, away on business a lot, she said, and she had a two year old at home, it just wouldn’t work. Even Saturday or Sunday? I said. It wouldn’t be any trouble – I could pick Gary up and drop him off, he could even stay for lunch, give his parents a break. She said no, on the weekend her husband would be home, wanted to spend time as a family.”
“Right, that made sense. Dylan was disappointed, of course, so I called back the next week. Same thing. And the next. And – and, finally, she said all right, Gary can come over. All right, like she was doing me a favour. No, not that,” she corrected. She was thinking out loud. Nothing she was telling me seemed useful or relevant, but I didn’t want to interrupt her. “Not rudely. More like…more like, it was easier for her to agree.”
“I see.” I thought of my last few months at work, all my dealings with Roger.
“So we arranged a play date.” The words were coming quickly now, all reticence shelved. “Dylan was over the moon. Gary’s mother – Anoushka – she wanted to make sure we weren’t going anywhere, that Gary would be ready when she picked him up at four – I told her, he can stay longer, and really, he’s a well-behaved kid, and to be honest, with the two boys I can go off and read a book, get some cooking done – but no, she insisted.”
“She was anxious.”
“To put it mildly. But more disturbingly – so was the boy. And he’s five. And – well, Dylan’s a quiet boy, but Gary seemed…scared. I brought out the finger paints for them, and Gary was worried about making a mess. What five year old worries about making a mess? Anyway, I said, don’t worry, and he painted, but you could tell he was too worried to be having much fun. And it was the same with other things. I gave them a snack, peanut butter and crackers. Gary got some peanut butter on his shirt. Hardly any, really. But he said – Daddy’s going to be upset.”
Kids can be messy, I started to say, but closed my mouth. Manny Thomas didn’t need me to defend him, even against minor offences. And Julia Clark was getting somewhere.
“I said, ‘it’s just a little bit of peanut butter, it’ll come out in the wash,’ – I mean, I thought it was odd, but what do you say? But he continued, got really agitated. Finally I said, okay, let’s wash it off right now, took him to the sink. Then he said, Do you have a hair dryer? That’s what my mommy uses.”
“Oh.” Something twisted inside me, and I heard my father’s voice, instructing my three-year-old self: We need to be quiet. Maybe let’s go into the back yard? Mommy’s taking a nap. And me, petulant: Mommy’s always taking a nap. And my father, nodding sadly, which somehow was worse than arguing or explaining or even giving me a time-out for talking back.
“We had him over a few more times, but I had them play with Lego and blocks – that was better, no mess to make, nothing to worry about – but other than that, it was the same: Anoushka had a strict set of times Gary could come over, it was only once every month or so, and she was always on time picking him up. And Gary – he started to relax around here, he really is a sweet kid – but he was always ready when his mother came. That was the other thing – he had a wristwatch. Five years old! And he kept looking at it. And at five to four, he’d ask for his shoes, or boots and jacket if it was winter, and he’d be ready. No ‘five more minutes’ like I get with Dylan. Not that I’m complaining.”
“So the family was pretty strict,” I offered, as though trying to steer the story somewhere else, someplace where the name of a five year old son of a man who issued threats could be removed from the roster of his kindergarten class and appear on a letter weeks after anyone could report having seen him, somewhere where the boy ended up safe anyway.
“More than that,” Julia Clark corrected. “There’s strict and then there’s strict. Any tiny mistake – and some things that weren’t mistakes – would send Gary into a panic. And Anoushka was always on edge. Not just on edge. She – sometimes she was in pain. No broken limbs, no visible bruises, but sometimes, she moved slowly, like an old woman. Once Gary went to hug her and she pushed him away – not in a mean way – and – this is the worst part – he picked up on it, just sidled up to her instead. Like this was the routine. And she’s younger than me.”
I stayed silent, afraid to speak.
“One afternoon – I said to her, if she ever needed a safe place to stay with the boys, we had plenty of space and could have them as long as she wanted.”
The room was quiet, too quiet. The sun cut through the blinds, too clear, too bright. “And what did she say?” I asked.
“She said, thank you.”
There was nothing to say to that.
“So all of this has been a very roundabout way of saying that when Anoushka emailed me the other week, and when I received the letter from Ottawa, I was relieved. For the first few weeks after Gary disappeared, I assumed the worst. I phoned the house, but the number had been disconnected. Anoushka’s cell went to voicemail, and then the mailbox was full. I emailed. Finally I got a reply, but not for weeks, and it was brief. But it said what I’d hoped, that it was just her and the kids, not her husband. And then, a little while later, the letter, which Dylan wanted to share with friends and teacher. I didn’t see the harm in that. But I didn’t send the envelope with him, I didn’t give anyone the address. And I’m sorry, but I’m not giving it to you.”
“No, of course not,” I said. Of course not. I’d finally reached someone who could help me, and she was doing the right thing by holding back. I could hardly fault her for that – I admired her for it – but I could certainly fault myself, for allowing myself to be consumed by something that had nothing to do with me, and for not anticipating that at the end, I would have nothing to show for my efforts but knowledge – knowledge of a terrified woman, of a little boy who was far too eager to please. I continued anyway: “Did you speak to her on the phone?”
“No. I don’t have her number in Ottawa and she’s unlisted. After we made contact over email, I decided not to push it.”
“The kids didn’t talk to one another?”
“No. I –” The sentence froze, an icicle forming mid-drip. When Julia Clark continued, her voice wobbled, uncertainty coating her words for the first time. “There were pictures of the boys in the envelope,” she said. “But they could have been taken a few weeks ago, in Calgary.”
“Yes,” I said, just to say something.
“But she emailed – I got an email from her account.”
“Had she emailed you from that account before? Back in Calgary?”
“Yes, I checked. It was the same address. But I guess that doesn’t mean she sent it.”
“Did you check the headers?”
“The email headers. When you get an email, there’s some information at the top – the subject line, who it’s from, the date it was sent – but if you dig around a bit, there’s more: about how the email was routed – and that often gives you a clue about the physical location of the sender. Not their street address, but their country, and often their province and city as well.”
“Oh. I didn’t know you could find all of that from an email.”
“You can. Do you still have Anoushka’s emails? From before she left town and after?”
“I’m sorry, I’m not sending you anything. I don’t know you and I’m not a computer person and for all I know, you can figure out from an email exactly where she and her kids are living.”
“I can’t. At most I can find the city. And even then there are ways to – hold on.” I leaned back, kneaded my temples. “Ms. Clark – you’re right not to trust me. As I said, I’ve been looking into this for a few weeks. And I’ve been getting threats from Anoushka’s husband. Anoushka’s not safe. Okay? She’s not safe. If Manny Thomas doesn’t know where his wife is, why is he threatening me? And if he knows, and everyone’s okay – then it makes even less sense.”
Silence, and then, “I have only your word that someone has been threatening you.”
“I know. I know. Listen, how about this: tracing email headers is easy, if you know how to do it. How about I email you some step-by-step instructions, and you can check? For your own peace of mind.”
“Okay. I can do that.”
“Great.” I supplied my email address, and grabbed a pen and a piece of junk mail as she recited hers. “It’s not a hundred percent. But if someone else, someone who doesn’t know much about computers, is sending emails from Anoushka’s computer, from somewhere in town – or, for that matter, anywhere outside Ottawa – it’ll detect that.”
“Okay. That’s good.” A few seconds later: “But I got a physical letter too, with an address. I wrote back – well, Dylan wrote back – but we didn’t get a reply yet. But, a street address, that can be checked. The police can check that.”
“Yes, they can.”
“I don’t know that they’d tell me anything, mind you. For the same reason I’m not telling you anything. Except that I have an address. Oh, God. You really think – oh, God. Okay. Okay. I’m going to check the emails. I can do that right away, you said?”
“As soon as I type up a set of instructions for you. I can have that to you soon, probably within the hour.”
“Okay, that’s good. You know, I stopped worrying when I got the letter and the emails. And – well, you’ve heard this part. I’m going to check everything out. The house too, to the extent that I can from here. Maybe he’s living there with them, still? I suppose that would still be better than – but then if I call the police, what if –”
“Let’s start with the emails,” I said.
“Right. Okay, I’d better go so you can send me those instructions, right?” She gave a nervous laugh. “Well, thank you, anyway. I’ll feel better even if I just feel like I’m doing something.”
I murmured something noncommittal in agreement before ending the call. I didn’t move from my chair for several seconds. I’d just promised Julia Clark all of the tools she needed to find someone – several people – who’d eluded my efforts for weeks. I doubted she was in on the con, whatever it was, and if she was, I probably hadn’t told her anything she didn’t already know, or wouldn’t be able to figure out soon enough anyway. More likely, Julia Clark was eminently trustworthy, if untrusting, and I’d just all but guaranteed that all information about Anoushka Thomas and her children’s whereabouts would reach her before it reached me – and that it would be filtered through her if it got to me at all. I didn’t like that, but I didn’t see that I had much choice.
I turned the record player back on, and retreated to the sofa with another beer.