MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 25

My father returned me to the SkyTrain on Sunday evening, hesitating before he let me out. “I can take you the whole way if you want,” he offered. “Keep you away from the crowds, you don’t want to get sick again.”

“You hate driving downtown,” I reminded him.

He nodded, and for a second I wondered if he’d actually forgotten.

“Night, Dad. I’ll call you this week.”

Back home, I killed a couple of hours sipping tea and watching television before retiring to bed. I lay awake for another half hour or so, worrying about my father, pondering my employment prospects, and wondering about moving back to my old room for a short while…or a long one. They weren’t pleasant thoughts, but they were banal ones, cozy and familiar as an old sweater. I slept well that night, eight dreamless hours.

Monday started going badly before I’d gotten out of bed.

There were two emails from the security company that I read hunched over my laptop sipping coffee: the first, agreeing to extend the surveillance of my father until Friday; the second informing me that there was a problem with my credit card. “That’s impossible,” I told them over the phone. “It’s the same card I used last week, and I just paid it off, and it doesn’t expire for another two years.”

“Well, it was denied,” the operator repeated. “Would you like to give us another?”

“No, never mind, I’ll see what happened and call you back when I’ve figured it out.”

Even then, I saw where the rest of the morning was headed, and there was nothing to do but follow the script: to the grocery store, where I paid cash for a handful of apples and bananas, a loaf of bread, and a bag of dried beans; after dropping my provisions at home, to an ATM, where I fruitlessly jabbed the familiar sequence of numbers; and finally, to the bank, talking to a teller who looked like he was straight out of high school.

“Hmm,” he said, squinting at my card, which had failed twice to scan. He then entered the digits manually, four at a time, eyes flitting from the card to the screen to the keyboard and back again. The entire procedure took less than thirty seconds, but more than once I had to restrain myself from jumping over the counter and taking over. “All right, let’s see what we have here,” he said, and then squinted again, shook his head, and painstakingly reentered the numbers.

“What is it?”

“Kovelevsky, right?”

“What’s going on?”

“How many accounts do you have here with us?”

“Two, chequing and savings.”

“No investments – mutual funds, RRSPs?”

“No, I have a mortgage, any extra goes straight to that. What’s going on?”

He swiveled the screen around.

“Says here that both your accounts were closed last Thursday.”

“Closed.”

“Mmm-hmm.” He turned the screen back and clicked some more.

“I didn’t close any of my accounts.” I felt oddly detached, as though observing the scene from a distance.

He continued typing. “I’m checking to see if you have anything in any other accounts. Hold on…” More squinting, a few more clicks. “No, nothing. Does anyone other than you have access to your account?”

Not deliberately. “How were they closed? Does this mean all my money is gone? I must have had five, six thousand in there, counting my severance.” And then, for no reason: “And my credit card.”

He studied the screen for another few seconds. “According to my records, a withdrawal in the amount of the full value of your holdings was made in the form of a money order last Thursday, from one of our other branches.”

“Where?” I asked pointlessly.

“Calgary. Do you want the exact address?”

“Sure, what the hell.”

The teller didn’t move to write it down. “According to my records, this account is in your name only. You didn’t give anyone your card?”

“I didn’t give anyone anything,” I said wearily. “To get a money order, you need to show ID, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course.”

I stood there for another few seconds, until I saw the teller crane his neck and display an index finger to an impatient customer. “Mine was stolen a few weeks ago, and…well, never mind. Is my money gone?”

At this he looked directly at me and shrugged, a worthless affectation of sympathy. I wanted to hit him. “A money order works like cash,” he explained, and the full meaning of everything suddenly struck me. Dizziness engulfed me, and I reached for the counter to steady myself. “…to the police,” I heard. I nodded, and nearly knocked over an elderly woman as I hurried out of the building.

I stood outside the bank, leaning against the wall and willing myself to take deep breaths. I counted my money in my wallet, the sum total of my liquid assets: twenty-eight dollars and change. I had no savings, no income, no immediate job prospects, and a small handful of bills that would soon turn into a larger handful; but I had a place to stay and I had enough food to last me a few days. And if things went further than that, I owned my place and had equity (how much? Where had I left that letter from the mortgage company?), and I had a line of credit, and there were second mortgages, but how did any of that work when you didn’t have an income or a bank account and… and you have a father who loves you and wants to take care of you, said a voice in the background, but that option somehow seemed worse than anything, because to avail myself of it was to concede that I couldn’t take care of myself.

Breathe, Kathleen. I stared straight ahead, and counted out sixty slow seconds, breathe in, breathe out, breathe in. Fifty or sixty people passed me, businesspeople in suits with briefcases, teenagers and twentysomethings out of school for the summer or forever. My pulse slowed, and I pulled out my phone to look up an address. Then I headed back to the SkyTrain and out of downtown.

In the end, and after not a little thought, I decided to tell the truth, if not all of it: that I was a victim of identity theft, and that my bank accounts had been breached, and that I had all of twenty eight dollars accessible to me. What was the status of my application, and could I have the payments delivered to me by cheque? Mail would be fine, I said, but it would be even better if I could just pick them up directly from the office.

The woman working the reception desk at the Employment Insurance office listened to this story with bureaucratic dispassion, distilled it into a few keystrokes, and furrowed her brow at the monitor. “Your file has been flagged.”

“What does that mean? I mean – I know what it means, it means there’s a problem and you can’t pay me now. But why?” My voice sounded shrill, even to myself. I forced some more breaths. This is a government agency, things get done slowly here, this could be anything, for all you know it’s just –

She shook her head. “All I have here is the flag. Would you like to meet with one of our claims processors? They can give you more details.”

“Sure.” The receptionist gave me a number and pointed me to a row of chairs, where I joined a half dozen other people who probably also had nothing better to do.

Half an hour later, I was sitting at a desk across from a fortysomething man who addressing me with something quite different from dispassion.

“EI exists to pay out benefits to people who are unemployed and looking for work,” he lectured. “When the recipient finds work, payment is automatically discontinued as soon as Service Canada receives notice from the employer; any payment received while the recipient is employed can be reclaimed. Continuing to collect payment while gainfully employed constitutes fraud. So does applying for benefits while employed.”

“Of course.”

“Your name is Kathleen Kovalevsky, K-O-V-A-L-E-V-S-K-Y?” I nodded, and he asked me if a certain nine-digit sequence was my social insurance number.

I nodded, numb. I didn’t know exactly where this was going, but I knew enough, and I wanted to be anywhere but here; and more than anything I wished I were back in my old bed at my father’s house, nursing a hangover disguised as a stomach bug, with a pile of blankets on top of me and a bowl of homemade chicken soup in my hands.

“Our records have you working here in Vancouver at Stratitech, Inc, until last week, with your EI application submitted shortly after the termination of your employment. We also have you listed, beginning two weeks ago, employed by a private individual in Calgary, at a rate of one thousand dollars per week.”

I shook my head. “No. No. My identity was stolen around then. Today I discovered that my bank accounts were depleted and I have no money – I told this to the receptionist – didn’t she tell you this?”

“Yes, I have a note to that effect in your file. If you filed a police report, you can bring that to us and we can put in our records and reevaluate your claim.” His gaze slid back to the monitor. “However…”

And suddenly I knew. I sat motionless as the man behind the counter outlined the terms of Manny’s insurance policy, ugly and clear – and as far as I could tell, impenetrable: “However, we also have you living in Alberta: by cross-checking your claim with city records, our office has learned that you own the property you listed on your claim as your residence, and that you didn’t claim the basic grant the most recent time you paid your property taxes. As I’m sure you know, this tells us that your primary residence is not the local property given on your EI claim. Moreover, we cross-reference all submitted SINs with a national law enforcement database that would have flagged yours if it had appeared as part of an identity theft claim. Miss Kovalevsky,” he continued, staring directly into my eyes, “we take serious steps to prevent fraud, and we take those cases of fraud which come to our attention very seriously, even when the claimant hasn’t succeeded in collecting benefits. But pursuing these cases is costly, so I’ll give you the option of simply withdrawing your application. Unless you would like to try to convince us that someone is using your identity both to work in Alberta and pay your taxes in British Columbia.”

I had no sense of how long I sat there, silently, before the claims processor asked me if I’d made a decision. “Cancel it,” I said. “Cancel the claim. I can’t fight this.” My voice seized, and I found myself pressing my palms into the chair, trying to still the shaking I could feel taking over my limbs. “But – wait – before you do that, can you print or email me that file? At least the part about the Calgary job.”

He seemed to be trying to think of a reason to refuse my request, but after a few seconds, he wordlessly sent the file to a printer down the hall, and retrieved from it a single sheet of paper to hand to me. I stuffed the page in my pocket, and for the second time in as many hours, left a building with no idea how I would be increasing my holdings beyond twenty-eight dollars.

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