It was noon when I ended my call with Lisa. She’d been the last person on my list, and I felt at once accomplished and unsettled. I couldn’t think of anything to do now but wait: wait for Julia’s report on Anoushka’s emails; wait for a possible exchange of information with Raffi; wait for Manny’s next warning. I took it for granted, I realized, that there would be a next warning; and this troubled me less than I would have thought. He’d told me I could make his intrusions into my life stop if I minded my own business; but the prospect of forgetting about the missing women and children seemed infinitely more difficult.
I opened the file I’d started the previous day, and added an entry for Lisa Willingdon, office manager, editor, graphic designer, and bookkeeper at Heartland of Alberta. I entered a few lines: working with MT; what is/are MT’s other business(es)? What is HoA a cover for? and stared at the screen for a few seconds. I felt like I’d set the border of the puzzle in place, that I had an image of the scene; but the particulars remained frustratingly elusive. I saved the file and stood up, paced, and swung my arms around and bounced, like a self-aware toddler trying to wear herself out before naptime. At one point I phoned the security company to confirm that they’d have a guard in a car outside my father’s home at three o’clock, half an hour before he usually returned home on Thursdays, and that he’d text me if anything looked amiss, and intervene if they noticed anything that deviated from his routine – hadn’t we gone over that? Yes, I confirmed.
I paced a bit more, and then, on a whim, checked to see if Harsha was online. She wasn’t. I punched her number into my janesmith Gmail window, and she answered on the fourth ring.
“Hi, Harsha. Kathleen here. Quick question. What did you pay by way of taxes th–”
She cursed under her breath. “What part of ‘don’t call me anymore’ don’t you understand?” she demanded. “I blocked your last number, so you call me from a different one? Do this again and I swear to God, I’ll get a restraining order against you!”
“I’ll leave you alone if you answer this. Did Manny pay your taxes for you? Did -”
A click, and then silence.
I set my headset down, and let out as much of a scream as one can safely do in an apartment, which wasn’t much. Punching my desk was equally effective but more painful. I stood up and resumed my pacing for a few seconds, and slipped a new record out of its sleeve to replace the old one. I sat back down at my desk, and opened a new browser tab. Half an hour later, when the music ended, I’d accumulated some insight into why someone would use another person’s identity to give money rather than take it. However, I couldn’t see how the specific case of someone using my identity to give me money fit into anything, and that question sat there, sprawling and inert. I flipped the record over and turned the volume up, and returned to my desk to continue investigating the subject in the abstract. Google was less helpful when it came to providing more insight into dealing with the matter at hand, and I spent another hour or so on the phone with bureaucrats at various government agencies, each of which passed me onto other bureaucrats until finally one at the end of the chain told me that my best bet would be to go to my local police station and…
To hell with that. I grabbed my jacket, along with the yellow folder Roger had given me a lifetime ago, and headed to the library.
Two hours later, I was standing in line at the post office, reviewing a letter I’d printed from one of the library computers.
An identity thief is, by definition, a criminal. But neither your identity nor mine was taken for the purpose of stealing money. As you told me some weeks ago, in the months since your wallet was taken, no one used your credit cards, accessed your bank account, or even filed an insurance claim after a driver using your licence was involved in a car accident. To date, someone has effectively paid the City of Vancouver over eight hundred dollars for the privilege of using my identity. I gather that someone has paid your taxes, and/or contributed some funds for your silence.
When one’s identity is not stolen for the purpose of taking money, it is most commonly stolen for the purpose of making money – specifically, for the purpose of hiding a person’s income under a different name. Someone might do this because they have a criminal record, or because they are not eligible to work in Canada, or because, for whatever reason, they do not want to be found.
The person who I met as Harsha Gill has vanished; none of your thousands of readers, nor any of their thousands of acquaintances has any knowledge of her. I cannot report her missing, as I know nothing about her; moreover, I suspect that involving the law may put her in more danger. But I would like to know who, and where, she is.
It is easy to find out whether someone is working under your name. You can request copies of all of your tax slips, compiled as T4 Statement of Remuneration Paid, from the Canada Revenue Agency. This will list the names of all employers who have employed, and deducted taxes on behalf of, someone providing your name and Social Insurance Number. Call them at 1-800-959-8281 for details about this process. You can receive the statements immediately if you present yourself in person at the Calgary Service Canada office, located at 220 4 Ave SE. Ask them also for a summary of the employers and dates worked.
Please send me a copy of the statement when you receive it.
I have no intention of involving the police; I don’t begrudge you the hush money I have no doubt you received, and for all I care, this can stay between you and me. Moreover, I am not sure that your identity thief ought to be punished in the way that such criminals typically are, and so I’d prefer to keep the authorities out of this. However, if you do not cooperate with me, I am sure the police will, particularly if I tell them I have evidence you have been complicit in an identity theft you reported some months ago.
I look forward to hearing from you soon.
When my turn came, I folded the page in thirds, and handed over eight dollars and fifty cents, plus tax, to send the document as a registered letter. When the clerk regretfully informed me that the cost only guaranteed that someone at Harsha’s would receive the document, not that she would read it or even handle it, I scrawled a note in block capitals on the back of the envelope: IF YOU DO NOT REPLY TO THIS LETTER, I CAN EASILY FIND SOMEONE WHO WILL, and relinquished the letter to the clerk. The entire thing, including the threat on the envelope, may have been one big bluff – I hadn’t committed to the next step – but it was my best shot for now. And, just as important, it was something to do.
At home, there was something else to do: deal with an email that I promptly copied to a text file and then deleted. I cursed myself at the oversight: I’d changed all of my passwords since I’d learned that my home had been visited, but through a combination of paranoia and knowledge I’d gained in my professional life, I feared that that wasn’t enough, that my own computer still had the capacity to betray me. The machine was probably safe, but then, everything that had happened since my trip to Calgary – the trip itself, the accident, the elusiveness of the driver – had been a study in unlikely events, and so I made a mental note to back up my work and reformat my hard drive.
From: Julia Clark [[email protected]]
Subject: Re: email headers
Thank you for your detailed instructions about email headers. It was very easy to use the websites you pointed me to. I had no idea how much information was available to anyone who sends and receives emails from me!
I checked all of my emails from Anoushka, some from before I last saw her and one from after. The headers were different in the two cases. The first ones were said to have been sent from Calgary, and the last from Ottawa, as she told me.
Does this prove that she is in Ottawa? If so, it puts my mind at ease. I have been worried about her ever since our conversation. I would love to talk to her, but she didn’t give me a phone number, and her number is unlisted; I also worry that if she is still living with her husband, it would put her and the boys in danger if I were to call her.
I stared at the note for several seconds, and then logged into my janesmith account again and entered Julia Clark’s number. She answered immediately, and when I identified myself, she ran through the questions in her email again – a habit I’d encountered with my older clients, the ones who didn’t quite trust the new technology.
“I can’t tell you for sure,” I told her. “If the headers were the same or close – if the IP’s indicated that all of the messages had originated from Calgary – then I’d feel pretty confident in saying that the last of them wasn’t sent from Ottawa. But it’s possible to route – it’s possible to make it look like an email originated from somewhere other than the sender’s location. It takes some amount of technical knowledge to do this, but a person doesn’t have to be an expert.”
“Did Anoushka ever give you the impression her husband knew a lot about computers?”
“She never really talked about him. All I know about him is what I told you.”
There was silence for a few seconds; neither of us speaking, neither of us making any move to end the call.
“I’m not exactly an expert in this particular area,” I admitted, “but I work in IT. I know enough about email headers that I can usually tell when a message has been routed through a proxy. Not always, but most of the time. If someone outside of Ottawa was sending emails from Anoushka’s account and has a rudimentary understanding of this sort of thing, there are a few things he would do to fake the headers in such a way that most people wouldn’t notice anything. If that person was a pro, though, they could cover their tracks more effectively, but in general, if I were to see the full headers –”
“No.” Then, more quietly: “I mean – I don’t know you. You sound honest, you sound like you’re worried about them – but I don’t know you,” she repeated. “And if you weren’t honest, if you were just trying to get information so that you could tell her husband where she is – you’d be saying the exact same things. So I can’t tell.”
“Ms. Clark – Julia,” I amended, and she didn’t correct me, “I can’t get an exact location from headers. I’m not going to get a home address from this.”
“I’m sure you’re right. Pretty sure. But – again – I don’t know you, and I don’t know enough about computers to take your word for it. And you said if you got the emails, you still wouldn’t be able to tell for sure, so for all I know that’s what you’re going to tell me anyway, because how would I know the difference?”
I sighed. “You’re right. Well, you’re wrong in that I would tell you what I found. But you’re right not to take a stranger at their word.” And that right there was the crux of the problem. I couldn’t for the life of me think of any way around it.
“I’m worried about her,” she said. “I don’t know anyone in Ottawa who I could get to check up on her. If I could I’d go myself, I would, but I can’t take the time off and it’s expensive – mind you, she wouldn’t even have Dylan over to her home when they lived here, so who knows what would happen if I were to show up unannounced – anyway, we’ve been over that. I don’t even want to email her. This is going to bother me until I find – you know, I wasn’t even worried about this before you phoned me.”
“Don’t be. Listen, it’s been a long day and I can’t think of anything offhand. But I’m going to sleep on this, see if I can come with anything.”
“If you do, could you let me know?”
“I’m not giving you her addr –”
“I know. I’m not asking for it. I’m just asking for peace of mind, assuming you find out she’s okay. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep looking at my end, and I’ll let you know what I find – as much as I can without revealing details that might jeopardize her safety if they were to make their way into the hands I don’t trust.”
She agreed to that after a few aborted objections, and we hung up on those terms. Neither of us mentioned the possibility that nothing we found could possibly put Anoushka Thomas and her children in further danger.