MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 26

Back home, sipping a glass of water – I’d reached for one of the two cans of beer I had left in the fridge before deciding to ration them until I had more than twenty-eight dollars in my possession – I squinted at the printout I’d taken with me from the Employment Insurance office. My heart caught as I noticed the address at the top right-hand corner of the page: 280 Abbotsford Crescent. The Thomas residence. There was a legal record of me living at a home of a family no one had seen in months, and whose neighbours would recognize me from my recent visit. I absorbed the realization numbly.

The information below the address was sparse, and revealed only that a private individual named Gordon Richards had employed me some two weeks earlier, and was scrupulously deducting income taxes from my paycheques – hence the record of employment. This detail so naturally conjured Manny’s words – paying one’s taxes can keep one out of all sorts of trouble – that I’d hung up halfway into dialing the first G Richards in Calgary. The Gordon Richards I wanted probably wasn’t listed, if he even existed.

I have no job and I have no money. What else do I have to lose? – and the answer hit me in the stomach, hard and heavy. I grabbed my phone and felt my whole body slack when the first ring was cut off – Oh, nothing much, Dad. Just calling to let you know that I’m feeling much better. We chatted for another minute or two, and I signed off, and went to check my mail.

To my surprise, Harsha had responded to the letter I’d sent the previous Thursday. I skipped over a few sentences of profanity and double-clicked on the attachment, a scanned copy of several tax receipts, followed a different type of document. The dollar figures on the tax receipts had been blacked out – it’s none of your business how much I get paid and only one listed the employer of hers that I knew, the Calgary Trail. A bit of Googling led me to infer that most of the others were for freelance work she’d done over the course of the year; one was specifically for the ad revenue her website had generated. And one listed a company I recognized: a local publisher of romance novels.

The next page listed all of the employers, along with dates worked, one to a line. At the end of the scanned file was a page headed “T1 Adjustment Request”, dated a few weeks earlier, reporting an additional gross income of some forty eight hundred dollars, from which Heartland of Alberta had deducted taxes the previous year.

I fired off a reply: What happened after the adjustment was filed? Did you have to pay extra or get a refund?

She replied within five minutes, a petulant I sent you what you asked for.

And I appreciate it, I wrote back. I just have a few more questions. You can answer them for me, or I can suggest to Service Canada that they ask you themselves. They take fraud very seriously, I understand.

This time it was twenty minutes before she wrote back: a paragraph exhorting me to mind my own business, followed by one informing me that she hadn’t gotten a refund or a penalty, and that for that matter, she hadn’t even known of the tax adjustment until that morning, and that if I looked closely I’d see that the T4 from Heartland of Alberta listed a separate address. I scrolled through the scanned forms again; indeed, the other T4s had all found their way to 10A Street NE, but the one from the publisher had been sent to a location in the southwest quadrant. Google Maps revealed a UPS office at that address, and I cursed under my breath. Another dead end. Anyone with ID could rent a UPS mailbox anywhere in the country, and someone had lifted an entire set of ID from Harsha the previous winter.

I typed out a reply to the next message, asking point-blank what Manny Thomas was paying her to keep quiet. As soon as I hit send, though, I knew, though I wouldn’t have worded it the way Harsha did: No one’s paying me anything to “keep quiet”. As you can see, I earned a few thousand dollars on the side working for a local publisher between last fall and last month. I obey the law and I pay my taxes. Now piss off.

I closed the browser, and added another entry to my file:

HARSHA GILL IMPOSTER

Last seen April, by me

Earned income during November/December under HG’s name, paid by HoA

Paid to account in HG’s name? probably

any income in this year? Wouldn’t have been reported yet

HG says money is now hers.

Why would anyone steal an ID, earn money under it, and then give the $ to the person they’d stolen the ID from?

The last question, at least, had an easy answer. No one would.

I walked over to the fridge and took out one of the rationed beers.

Contemplating the fate of the fake Harsha Gill provided a distraction from contemplating my own indigence, if not a pleasant one. Only slightly more agreeable was wallowing in self-pity over the way my own situation compared to the real Harsha’s: she, with a brand-new bank account; I, no longer in possession of mine, and unable to access the one source of income I’d assumed I could count on, and all that because –

Because I was listed as already having a source of income.

I leapt up from the couch, yanked my laptop from the counter, and started searching. Twenty minutes later, I had a list of phone numbers with 403 area codes, ordered from most to least likely, with the small, local credit unions at the top, the larger banks below. I came up with a pretense, a general query that I hoped wouldn’t elicit the usual questions about my mother’s maiden name and my first pet and my best friend from first grade: I wasn’t sure I’d get them right this time. The first call was a bust, and I tried to cover for the error with absentminded contrition – oh, you know what, it’s the company account I have with you, not the personal one – my personal account is with CIBC. Sorry for wasting your time.

The second worked: the operator hesitated when I said I’d misplaced my bank card, but I convinced him it would do no harm to check if five hundred dollars had been transferred from my account in the past week. No, he told me a few seconds later, no money had been transferred in the past week, but it could take up to five business days for these things to go through; would I like him to check? That wouldn’t be necessary, I assured him; and I quickly disconnected the call and laughed, a giddy release of the morning’s tension.

Louise didn’t answer my knock, and she didn’t answer when I buzzed her either. She answered my call, though, with the demeanour of someone caught in the middle of something. I pretended not to notice.

“I don’t think I ever thanked you for changing my lock so quickly,” I said.

“Oh. You’re welcome. Again, I’m so sorry. You saw the note I posted in the lobby, about not letting strangers into the building and reporting anyone suspicious –”

“Yes, with the description of a particular suspicious individual. I saw that.”

“Okay, good. I never should have – ”

“I know, Louise. I don’t think we’ll expect my visitor back. He got what he wanted.”

“I thought you said nothing was missing?”

“Nothing I noticed right away. He didn’t take my TV or my stereo or my computer – he used my computer, mind you – but he took my birth certificate and my social insurance number, along with some other pieces of identification. And what he took was enough for him to get into my bank account, and take all of my money.”

“Oh, god. I – all of it? Oh, god, Kathleen, I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah, all of it. And I don’t have a job, and I can’t even collect EI, because he messed with that too.”

“How did –”

“Meanwhile, I have bills to pay, including for the roof over my head, and I have twenty-eight dollars in my wallet. And that’s all the money I can get my hands on in the near future, short of selling my furniture on Craigslist.” It struck me suddenly that I might be able to sell my skills on Craigslist – surely there was someone in town who needed a deleted file retrieved, or hard drive resuscitated, and was willing to pay cash for the privilege. I felt a pang of relief, but I swallowed that for now. “I have a line of credit – I had a line of credit – honestly, I don’t know if I still have that or if he’s messed with it too, and I don’t know how second mortgages work when you hardly have any equity and you don’t have a job or a bank account and –” Describing this to someone else for the first time, the reality of my situation engulfed me anew, and I could feel my words running away from me. I took some deep breaths, and reined my voice back to its familiar speed and pitch. “I have some extra money,” I continued, and my own words calmed me. “I don’t know how much – but I can’t get it from where I am.”

“What do you mean – why can’t – oh, never mind. I can put in a note with the property manager to give you an extension on this month’s maintenance fee, so you won’t be charged the late penalty.”

I laughed, a half-choke that escaped of its own accord. “Louise!” I cried. “I lost thousands of dollars because of you. I didn’t call you so that you could save me a five percent penalty on a three hundred dollar payment.”

“Kathleen, I don’t know what I can tell you. Don’t you have insurance?”

“On my property! On the contents of my suite! Not on thousands of dollars that exists inside computers in banks! Listen, if he’d come in and taken my TV, I could fill out some forms and collect on my policy, but what happened is that someone walked into a bank, convinced a professional that they were me, and had their way with my savings. And it’s my word against someone else’s, and fuck if that someone else will ever be found, and if you worked at a bank would you believe me? Because if so, once word got around, you’d have everyone draining their accounts and then saying ‘oops, that wasn’t me, now give me that money back.’”

“I see what you – what do you want me to do?”

“I need money,” I said, and I could hear the desperation in my own voice. Tears welled up behind my eyes, and I bit on a knuckle to keep myself from crying. The conversation I’d had with Louise in my head had gone so differently – I, calmly laying out the facts; she, penitent, offering full restitution for my loss – but here I was, reduced to begging, another indignity in a day that had contained nothing but. I swallowed, and forced myself to continue. “A few hundred dollars – six hundred – should be enough for now, but I don’t know for sure. All I need is a loan, but I can’t guarantee it, because…”

“Six hundred dollars.”

I waited.

“Okay, I can lend you that. Me, personally, not from the strata funds. When do you need this?”

“Right away. Well, as soon as possible, and –” I glanced at the clock; too late to do anything much today. “By the end of the day at the latest. I’ll also need your help to –”

“Oh, I’m in Prince George visiting my sister for the week, didn’t you get the note? But I can probably arrange to transfer –”

“I don’t have a bank account!” I yelled. “I have twenty-eight dollars and I guess I could open an account with that, if I don’t mind sharing all of my money with a stranger! Haven’t you been listening to me?”

“Kathleen, calm down, I’m just trying –” She stopped mid-sentence, apparently thinking better of that. “I don’t want to put cash in the mail, and I’m away until Sunday.”

“This can’t wait until Sunday.”

“I’m sorry, but that’s the best I can do. Don’t you have anyone else who can lend you the money, at least until the weekend, when I can pay you back?”

Lend it back,” I corrected. “You cost me thousands of dollars and the best you’re offering is to lend me a few hundred.”

She sighed. “I think we’re beginning to repeat ourselves here,” she remarked with the professional detachment of a bureaucrat or meeting facilitator with no stake in the outcome. “I’m very sorry about what’s happening here, but I’ve offered to help you in the way that I can. If you really can’t accept a deposit into a bank account, or wait until the weekend, I’m afraid you’ll have to ask someone else. A friend, maybe? Or your father, he’ll help, right?”

“Yeah, my father’ll help,” I said bitterly. “He’ll have a heart attack when he finds out that someone’s targeted his only child and has gained control over her life, but he’ll help.”

There was a pause, an instant too long. “Oh, now, I’m sure that’s not true,” she cooed. I didn’t reply, and provided little help as she offered a variety of similar platitudes in a one-sided effort to end the call gracefully. Parents worried about their children, but my father was probably stronger than I realized; everything would work out in the end; if I didn’t want to impose on my father or a friend, there were other options – had I considered one of those payday loan places, they had high interest rates but they gave you the money right away, didn’t they…?

“I don’t have a payday,” I snapped.

Right, right, then maybe there was something I could sell?

“I can’t get six hundred dollars for my TV or my stereo or my computer. Only thing that comes to mind is my dead mother’s wedding ring. Listen, thanks for all your help.”

She stuttered a bit over that. I hung up before she could reply.

I lay down, as frustrated with myself as with anyone else for not being able to deal with this. The unpleasant fact of the matter was that I didn’t have any friends who’d lend me six hundred dollars, no questions asked, let alone any friends close enough that they’d know the entire story and wouldn’t have to ask any questions in the first place. I could rationalize this with little effort – the fewer people tangled up in this mess, the better; Manny had already obliquely threatened my father, and more people close to me could only mean more people vulnerable to his interference, et cetera.

But the pitiful truth was that I didn’t have any close friends because neither I nor anyone who had ever fallen into that category had seen fit to maintain much of a relationship over the years. I’d fallen out of touch with my high school friends shortly after graduation, as we’d never had much in common to begin with and we’d found one another merely pleasant enough to pass the time with. The years after were somewhat less alienating, as my classmates were all computer nerds as well; but there were only two other girls in my class, and they spent their time with one another and with a rotating cast of boyfriends. In the years since we’d obtained our diplomas, my former study partners had all found girlfriends, some of whom had been upgraded to fiancées and wives, and the easy banter and inside jokes we’d once shared had faded to an awkward formality. Occasionally there’d be a suggestion of an invitation – Maybe Jennifer (or Rachel, or Melissa) and I can have you over for dinner one of these days? – but I’d never gotten the impression anyone had really wanted to follow through, and no one ever did.

My father would help me. Lord knew what it would do to him, how he’d pass the hours without me, knowing that someone had a secret to protect and was doing everything in his power to prevent me from learning what it was. He’d steer me away from the airport and to the police station and then back to my childhood bedroom, and when I’d leave he’d phone me every hour to make sure I was still safe. And if having me within arm’s reach would be enough to put his mind at rest, it would prolong my own mental torment. I had never seen a picture of Anoushka, but her image interrupted my thoughts several times daily: a young woman bruised and scared; her two boys, the older one anxious beyond his years, taking on the role of protector. Manny’s threats made it hard to take Gary’s letter from Ottawa at face value. And then there was Harsha’s imposter, an identity thief who’d accumulated thousands of dollars under Harsha’s name, only to abandon it; and I could imagine no scenario in which the dark woman with the blemished eye and the long braid could have taken the money but had chosen not to.

I could ask my father, but not without incurring a huge debt, far more than six hundred dollars, more than anything I could measure in money. He’d help, and it calmed me to know I wasn’t alone, but I wasn’t going to ask him first. I wasn’t going to ask him until I asked Matt.

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