MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 27

I’d met Matt a week into my second term at UBC. He was a gangly kid who sat at the back of our operating systems class, seldom volunteering to answer any of the professor’s questions, but occasionally asking one of his own: a query about some obscure aspect of the subject, delivered in a voice that was always slightly too loud and didn’t seem to be entirely under his control. On occasion, he’d raise his hand a minute or so before dismissal, prompting a long-winded response from the instructor, and plenty of eye-rolling from our classmates. If Matt noticed – and I’m not sure he did – he did nothing to alter his behaviour. I soon found myself admiring him, not because I was interested in his questions – I often even even understand what he was asking – but because he seemed to have goals beyond getting a degree and heading off into the world.

I didn’t. In high school, I’d enjoyed coding, had enjoyed knowing that I could get machines to do as I pleased if only I asked them properly. But I hadn’t been terribly ambitious, and had no interest in the more theoretical material. I was studying for a degree because I wanted to gain enough skills for someone to pay me to work with computers for a living, and soon. Nothing else on campus interested me, and by the end of every school day I was relieved to leave the crowds.

Matt and I were both awkward outsiders, though, and that was enough. Neither of us had managed to form or gain entry into any cluster of students during that crucial first term – he, because he was a nerd; I, because I kept mostly to myself, or because I was a girl and not a particularly good-looking one, or because of any number of other reasons that are that much more difficult to identify from the inside. One day, when the professor announced that our next project was to be completed in pairs, we caught each other’s eye across a few rows and shrugged. Why not?

We worked well together, and soon became easy friends, and then a clumsy couple, two overgrown adolescents who hadn’t figured out how to negotiate being part of a pair. We’d both found summer work, I testing and debugging a photo editing program; he, administering the computer network at a sports medicine clinic recently opened by a friend of a former high school teacher of his. “You wouldn’t believe what sort of data we have access to there,” he once said to me. “Credit cards, insurance info, medical histories, everything.”

“Isn’t that all encrypted?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I’m the one who encrypts it.”

Neither of us went back to UBC that fall. He’d stuck with the sports medicine clinic until he grew bored of it a few months later, and from there went on to work a series of short but well-paying contracts. I’d dropped out entirely, to spend the next two years back with my father in Maple Ridge, doing little but watching television and surfing the web. My father worried, but put no pressure on me; I could tell that on some level he liked having me around. He seemed to know I’d eventually get bored and decide to do something else with myself, and I did, transferring to BCIT to get a diploma in database administration.

Matt and I stayed together more out of inertia than anything else. I suspected the relationship would end sooner rather than later, and I detached myself emotionally in preparation for the day. My life seemed to be frozen in place, a series of decent if not exciting summer jobs and a promise of a decent if not exciting future. His, on the other hand, had momentum. At twenty-one, I could see that his awkwardness at eighteen had been a delayed puberty, whereas mine was something more permanent. He had filled out, transformed from nerdy to merely preppy, maintaining an air of innocence that led employers to trust him with sensitive information. Soon he found work at an up-and-coming startup, and stuck around during its well-publicized merger with an established gaming company. During the weeks leading up to the buyout, he worked late nights, secretive about the nature of his involvement in the firm. I didn’t ask.

Some time later, I phoned him while he was visiting his parents in Coquitlam. He’d stepped out for a bit, leaving his phone on the counter, and his mother answered it, and we chatted pleasantly, a few seconds of small talk that gave way to her gushing over her only son’s achievements. “He was the first of our family to go to university,” she said, “and we were a bit nervous when he dropped out, because it wasn’t easy to make a go of it without a degree a generation ago, and it’s harder today. But it’s worked out so well for him, and he’s never forgotten where he’s come from. He paid off our mortgage the other month, bought us a car. Sent me and Murray on our first vacation in years. And he tells me you’re doing very well too.”

“It’s a good industry to be in these days,” I lied, and ended the call with as much grace as I could muster, promising to call back. I didn’t.

Soon I’d figured out most of it, and Matt had readily supplied the rest, glad to have someone who’d appreciate the ingenuity behind the operation. He’d had stock options at the startup, I knew, but not nearly enough to finance property and cars and overseas holidays. Nor could he purchase any on his own. But he had a collection of credit card numbers, connected to names and addresses, that he’d acquired from previous jobs; it was just a matter of using them, and then calling the owners as a representative from their banks. “We’ve noticed a suspicious charge on your card,” he’d say, and the owners were always a bit surprised but happy the error had been caught so quickly. From then it was a simple enough matter for Matt to refund the amount out of his own pocket, through a company with a name very similar to the startup’s, that he’d created for this purpose. No one lost any money, so no one complained.

“That’s illegal,” I pointed out, stupidly.

He shrugged. “It’s not illegal for outsiders to buy shares in a small company, without knowing that they’re going to merge with a larger and more successful one,” he explained. “And the clinic’s patients could have done exactly that.”

“But they didn’t.” I knew I was fighting a losing battle, and I didn’t even know why I was so invested in fighting it: out of indignation that someone close to me would break the law, or out of jealousy that I hadn’t had the brains or the guts to pull off something similar myself.

“No one lost out,” he continued. “PixelPlay got some extra cash from investors, a bunch of people with sports injuries spent two minutes confirming that they’d like a refund. My parents got to stop worrying about money and take a vacation for once.”

We never formally broke up. We continued to chat online, and once or twice he phoned me, but our silences were strained now. Between the time we met and the time I walked across the stage to collect my diploma, we’d gone from strangers to good friends to an immature couple, and then back to old acquaintances who’d run into one another now and again, making conversation out of habit and perceived obligation rather than fondness. Once, he messaged me online: “It’s over, isn’t it?” It was, I confirmed. We never spoke after that.

There wasn’t anyone else after Matt, and I felt a distant kinship with my father, who seemed more suited to having a deceased wife than a living one. For my part, I missed the companionship of that first year with Matt, but not so much that I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the effort I knew it would take to replicate it. I got lonely at times, but loneliness agreed with me, whereas I couldn’t fathom carving my life to fit with anyone else’s, or theirs to mine.

I never forgot about him, though; he was an entrepreneur now, and it was easy to keep up with what he was doing from my own computer. An independent contractor, he updated his LinkedIn profile regularly, listing a new client once or twice a year. He had a Facebook page that he managed with the professionalism of someone always on the job market; and he had a personal website with his email address, phone number, and office location conveniently listed. He was in the phone book, and I could see that he lived in an apartment near City Hall – a nicer place than mine, but not suspiciously so. His name never came up in the news: he wasn’t living large, at least not publicly, and if he was using the inside knowledge I knew he possessed to supplement his holdings, he was doing a good job of hiding it. If I had to bet, though, I’d have said that his illegal foray into the stock market all those years ago had been a one-off: he’d wanted to see if he could get away with something, and he had. He’d never had expensive tastes, and with his family taken care of, he had no reason to risk anything again. In his current line of work and with his brains, he had means and opportunity, but no motive.

When he’d last deployed his skills illegally, it had been for a cause he’d found worthwhile. I was hoping that if he no longer thought me a worthwhile cause, he’d at least be willing to help me out if that was the only way he could keep the only person who knew the whole story about his shady past quiet. By any measure, Matt was the ideal person to lend me a few dollars, and perhaps give me some additional assistance beyond that as I tried to trace my money and others’. Because not only was Matt the most computer-savvy person I knew, he’d managed to build an impressive career for himself as a computer security specialist, having won half a dozen contracts with banks in the past several years – including his current stint developing and administering infrastructure at First Capital Savings, Vancouver’s newest credit union.

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