MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 22

My phone, ringer on maximum volume, jolted me from an uneasy sleep early the next morning. The voice at the other end was level. “Good morning, Kathleen.”

I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Raffi? No, not Raffi. I felt my chest constrict. “Hello, Manny,” I said. I was stiff and groggy, but I forced my eyes wide open, stretched, and pulled myself out of bed.

“How are we this morning, Kathleen?”

“Oh, not too bad.” I shuffled into the kitchen, flipped the switch on the coffee machine.

“That’s good,” he continued. He formed his words slowly, as though he was hiding their real meaning in syllables drawn out split-seconds too long. “I know that losing one’s job can be stressful. It’s important to keep busy.”

I flinched. “Indeed it is.” I filled a glass with water from the tap and took two large gulps. Apparently Manny was no longer gathering information, and now wanted me to know how much he knew about me. He wanted me intimidated. It was working.

“Maybe get out of the house a bit,” he continued. “Well, not house. Apartment. No, condo: you own the place. You know what I mean.”

The coffee machine had begun to gurgle. “I’ll consider that, Manny. Looks like it might rain today, so we’ll have to see. But thanks for your concern.”

“Yes, the rain. Speaking of which, you didn’t misplace your green umbrella. I wasn’t sure if I should take it, but your place was such a mess that I didn’t think you’d notice it gone.”

So this was how we were going to play it. I fought to keep my voice light; it came out too high, too fast. “Are you in town again? I can give you a tour of the city. If you want to meet me here, though, you’ll have to buzz me so I can let you in. The key you copied last week doesn’t work anymore.”

There were a few seconds of dead silence – no children squalling in the background this time – and then he gave a quiet, slow chuckle. “No, I’m done with your place for now. Got everything I needed. For now, anyway. But thank you for your offer.”

“Yes, you were very busy here.” My voice had settled, and I allowed myself a deep breath. “That reminds me. Thanks for your gift the other week. That was a nice surprise, especially since now I’m without a source of income.”

“And what gift would that be?” His speech had quickened as he deviated from the script. Did I detect genuine curiosity, or was that my imagination?

“The gift paid to the City of Vancouver.”

“Oh, that one. My pleasure.”

Were there others? The notion that several financial gifts might be coming my way manifested itself as an unfamiliar queasiness. No such thing as a free lunch, I thought; my stomach turned at this reminder that I didn’t know the cost of this one. “Not often someone offers to pay my bills. What are you getting in return, if I may ask?”

This time his answer was quick: “Insurance.”

“Insurance for what?” I took another gulp of water, wishing I had a cup of coffee in my hands instead. In my uncaffeinated state, judgment lagged behind speech. Should I have even mentioned the property taxes? Too late. I grabbed a pen and a scrap of paper and scribbled other “gifts”? check bank/bills.

“Insurance for what. Oh, that’s funny.” He chuckled again, and continued, slowly once more. “Insurance is for unforeseen events. When all goes according to plan, insurance ends up being a net cost to the policyholder. It’s only when events outside the policyholder’s control take place that one stands to benefit. And even then one doesn’t necessarily come out ahead. Consequently, one does one’s best to avoid such events, as they are at best inconvenient, at worst catastrophic.”

“Yes, I know how insurance works. But I’m sure you agree that this particular policy is a bit unusual. For example, you believe you’ve purchased insurance from me, yet I wasn’t involved in any transaction. ”

“Saves paperwork.”

“Still. Could you at least tell me what service you’ve purchased? What are these unforeseen events you wish to avoid?”

“Ahhh. Now we’re getting to the purpose of this call. I hadn’t planned to mention the insurance at all, as I didn’t expect you to be paying your taxes until closer to the deadline. But you paid them early. Which is fine, of course. Good, even. In addition to being a civic duty, paying one’s taxes can keep one out of all sorts of trouble.”

My pulse quickened. Paying one’s taxes can keep one out of all sorts of trouble. Half-thoughts assembled themselves, and fell apart before I could grab them. I scrawled a few words on the scrap of paper. “Unforeseen events,” I prodded.

“Right. Well, see, that’s the problem. It’s hard to describe such events. Not without defeating the purpose of this particular insurance policy. I have a fairly clear idea of what they are, of course. But it’s easier if I define the foreseen events in this case.”

I waited.

“The foreseen events are you going about your life as people in your situation are expected to go about their lives: looking for work. Enjoying their time off. Continuing to look after their elderly parents to the best of their abilities.” He let that one hang in the air for a few seconds. “In general, minding one’s own business. Which is located, I believe, in the Greater Vancouver area. As opposed to in Calgary.”

“I haven’t been to Calgary lately. Not planning any trips at the moment, either.”

“Oh, no, you haven’t,” he agreed. “But I know you’ve worked remotely in the past too. The very recent past, for that matter. And that could bring about unforeseen circumstances that are best avoided.”

“Well.” I took another sip of water. I spent a few anxious seconds trying to gauge what I could safely reveal to him, but quickly abandoned the exercise: the man had been in my home. “I appreciate your concern,” I said finally. “I can relate; as you know, I’m also concerned about someone I don’t know very well. A few someones, in fact. One of them doesn’t seem to exist outside a brief encounter I had with her, and a photograph that I’ve seen only by chance. A local columnist got a lot of publicity for this one, as you know, and assured the entire city of Calgary that she’s made contact. As you know, she hasn’t. I’m told three others have left town and are doing well, but that’s also been difficult to verify.”

“You’re not very trusting.”

“Neither are you. Hence this insurance policy of yours, whatever it is. Are those the unforeseen circumstances? That I figure out what’s really happened to Anoushka? And Gary, and Daniel? And someone who stole a local columnist’s identity but not her money?”

Anoushka and the boys are fine.

I could feel my heart pounding against my ribs. I took some deep breaths. “Can you put them in touch with me? Just for my peace of mind. I can visit them wherever they are; I have savings. Though I guess you know that. Or I could set up a video chat with them. I have all the time in the world.”

“Are you listening to me? I am telling you that they are fine. Pursue this further, and you will find everyone else telling you that they are fine. If you pursue things that are not your business, you will not help anybody. And you will regret it in other ways.”

You will find everyone else telling you that they are fine. The bizarre sentence reverberated, taunting me. “What did you do to them?” I demanded. “Why can’t I see them?”

He ignored me. “Give my best to your father,” he said, and hung up.

I stared blankly at the phone in my hand, and then at the coffee machine. The mug had filled, but I left it in its place. I was fully awake now.

I had to scroll a few weeks back in my phone logs to find the security company I’d called and then dismissed some weeks earlier. This time, I didn’t give the operator any background. I simply provided my father’s address, a brief description of his activities, and an outline of what I wanted for him: someone to watch his home discreetly when he was in, and to follow him to work. Yes, also to other places. Did I want them to watch his home? Come to think of it, yes, I did. So, two guards? Yes, I conceded. Though not full time. One full time staying with him, and one on call, to watch his home? That sounded right, I said, until the agent quoted me a dollar figure. I couldn’t afford that, plain and simple. I hedged for a bit, and then decided to go with the one guard watching him. My father had an alarm system, and he had a neighbour who cared about him. He also had a daughter who cared about him and who could visit for a week or so without having to claim any vacation time, but while the harm that Manny Thomas had in mind for my father still existed only in my imagination, I was all too familiar with the damage wrought by a disruption in his routine. I agreed to the one guard, only until Friday afternoon, when my father would meet me at the train station. Still a four-figure affair, and they wouldn’t be able to set anything up until they had a signature. They could send me a contract over email, or I could come down to their office, or…

I didn’t know what Manny had done to my computer, and I hadn’t yet wiped the hard drive and reinstalled the operating system. My shoes were already on by the time I’d hung up.

I returned from the security company still anxious, but confident I had a handle on the only threat that was somewhat within my control. I took a brief inventory of the parts of my life that Manny Thomas had penetrated. It was easy enough to access any account I managed online, so I was going to assume he had. Bank account, hydro, property, phone. Was that how he’d gotten my phone number? Though, he could have gotten it from Harsha Gill’s imposter. It suddenly occurred to me that for all of his cryptic remarks about Anoushka and her two boys –You will find everyone else telling you that they are fine – he hadn’t even mentioned the other woman. Anoushka and the boys had connections to Calgary, people who knew them and worried about them, but the other woman was a cipher, a true missing person: missing not only from Calgary, but from everyone’s consciousness besides mine.

There were four Willingdons whose numbers were listed online. None had a first name of Lisa or a first initial of L, and my only hope was that the Willingdon I wanted was among them, listed and not hiding behind a spouse of a different surname. I turned my computer back on, and started to dial the first of the listed numbers. Halfway through, I stopped.

I opened another browser. Using a proxy, I set up another Gmail account with the name janesmith followed by a suitably large numerical suffix, and dialled the Willingdons one by one. There was no Lisa at the first one, and I apologized for the wrong number. When I told the woman answering the second call that I was calling for the Lisa Willingdon who had worked for Heartland of Alberta, the affirmation was clear but unexpected. And surprised: “That was quick.”

The response knocked me off balance for a split second, and when I finally replied, it was with Roger, of all people, as muse: “How so?” I asked; the overemployed professional’s stand-in for I have no idea what you’re on about; please explain in detail.

Lisa Willingdon obliged. “Well,” she said, “when my husband lost his job a few years back, it took over a month before he was contacted. I just filled in the forms a couple weeks ago.”

It took me a second, but when I got it, I threw my head back and laughed, broadly and silently. Being near certain that Heartland of Alberta was connected in some way to Manny Thomas, who’d been no slouch at warning – and bribing – other curious parties, I’d planned to play a prospective author, but this was so much better. While I shuffled through the papers stacked beside my computer in search of the one I’d half-filled out before I’d noticed the online alternative, I stalled with, “Well, we’ve been streamlining our services in recent months” – the sort of empty IT phrase that served more often than not to excuse a service for which the streamlining hadn’t been fully (or even partially) realized.

“Well, that’s good,” continued Lisa. “The sooner I can start collecting my benefits, the better.” She paused, apparently noticing the incongruity between her statement and the phone call. “Why are you calling? Was there a problem with my form?”

“Not from this end,” I ad-libbed, “but Financial’s in charge of payments. I’m calling from Records.”

“I see,” said Lisa, which made me smile, because I didn’t.

“We need to confirm some information with you and then get some more details on the nature of your work,” I continued. “Do you have a few minutes?”

She did.

Great, I continued, and ran through the easy parts: her name was Lisa Willingdon, and she lived at the address I’d found online? Yes, and yes. Her employer, Heartland of Alberta, was a publisher of local romance fiction? Provincial, she corrected dully – was it my imagination that she was inflecting the term with both its meanings? – but yes, she said, that was pretty much it, all of their books were by, for, and about Albertans. That sounds interesting, I said, feigned spontaneity that probably sounded more feigned than spontaneous. But there was no going back, so I powered on: the sort of thing I’d enjoy reading myself; where can I find these books?

“You can’t anymore,” she said, “and you couldn’t much even before the company folded. That was the problem.” She sounded bored, as though she’d been over this before.

“I see,” I said. I was beginning to. “So the sort of work you did there, it was mostly clerical?”

“It was mostly everything,” she corrected. “I didn’t own the business, but the owner did little besides put up the cash. I was its only full-time employee and I more or less ran the place: office management, editing, bookkeeping, graphic design.”

Based on my sample of the one book, I was guessing editing was pretty far down the list. “Thomas,” I said, tossing the name out, a pebble into a pond.

“Right, he owned the place.”

I grinned, giddy at the confirmation.

“What’s this for?” she asked suddenly.

“Oh, just to get a more complete record for our database,” I stalled, long enough for inspiration to strike: “With a more detailed description of your skillset, we are better equipped to match you with employers in your region. And,” I added offhand, another pebble into the pond, “it explains the high salary.”

She ignored this last part. “Oh, okay. I didn’t know you did job placements.”

“Not job placements, per se,” I said. That Lisa Willingdon didn’t respond suggested that I was doing at least a passable job of mimicking a customer service worker at a bureaucracy that provided lousy customer service. I was both gaining and losing respect for Roger, who’d somehow managed to forge a career out of this nonsense. “But with a skillset as broad as yours, we should be able to find a match.”

“I hope so,” she said. She sounded disengaged, suspicious; I wondered what that meant. Lisa Willingdon was the only employee at a publisher that published lousy books and didn’t sell many (any?) of them. A paycheque was a paycheque, but she had to know something about why she was collecting a salary – above market rate – at a business that had never seen success.

“Just a few more questions,” I continued, “given the scope of your duties.” And then, a larger pebble, maybe a small stone: “To what extent were you working for Heartland of Alberta, as opposed to any of the other businesses in the Thomas group?”

This time there was no response, and I wondered if I’d pushed my luck. I waited eight long seconds, until at last she spoke: “I didn’t mention any other businesses.”

My heart was racing. Lisa Willingdon wasn’t just a pawn in Manny Thomas’s game, whatever it was. She knew where he got his bribe money, or insurance money, or whatever he called it. But I couldn’t think, not on the spot, how I could get her to reveal anything else without showing my hand. I was surprised I’d gotten this far. Time to end the call.

“No, you didn’t,” I agreed, “but whenever we get a new application, we cross-reference the data in it with the information in our files for the sake of completeness.” They would if I were designing their database, anyway. “Mr. Thomas’s name has come up in other contexts in connection with some other claimants’ applications.”

“Oh, okay.” A note of suspicion, or was I being paranoid?

“Well, thank you for your time, Ms. Willingdon,” I continued. “That’s all we need from you here in Records. You should start receiving your benefits soon.”

“How soon?”

“I’m afraid that’s up to Financial,” I said. I thanked her again, and disconnected the call before she could ask me to forward it.

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