MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 31

If I’d taken the time to formulate a mental image of a woman complicit in the disappearance – or worse – of multiple women and children, Lisa Willingdon would have defied it. A few faint lines around her eyes and mouth placed her in her early forties. Her dirty blond hair was streaked with brown and assembled into a loose knot that she’d secured with a pencil, and her outfit - jeans and a plaid shirt – resembled mine, at least superficially. Unlike my jeans, though, Lisa’s fit snugly, and her shirt was open over a fitted tank top. It was the sort of look I’d often heard described as “effortless”. It may have been for her, but somehow my daily expressions of sartorial effortlessness never came together in quite the same way.

The banality of her appearance threw me off balance. Faced with someone who didn’t look like a villain, my confidence dissolved, replaced by a façade that took far more energy to maintain. I sat across from her, sipping an excellent cup of coffee that I refused on principle to praise, as she shrugged and shook her head at the cover of my lightly-worn copy of Dowry. “I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know? You took her picture, right? You handled the books, didn’t you? And they were legit, or at least looked like they were, because Heartland of Alberta was the respectable front for…well, we’ll get to that. Anyway, you cut her a paycheque, right?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I cut her a paycheque. But I never knew her name.”

I let that steep for a few seconds. “Lisa. You were diligent in reporting income; that was the whole reason your company existed. You used original photographs with local models instead of stock photos that you could have gotten at a fraction of the price, so this woman was part of the front. She had a name and a social insurance number. What were they?”

“I didn’t say I didn’t have them; I did. But they were fake.”

“How do you know that?” I demanded, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew the answer.

“Because I created the identity we used for her.”

Dozens of half-formed questions floated toward me like soap bubbles, bursting as soon as I tried to grab hold of them. I shut my eyes, trying to will one into focus. “Just her? Or all of them?”

“All of them.”

“What was wrong with their original names?”

“They had no legal status in Canada. They came here without the proper paperwork. We provided the documentation they needed to work. And to take advantage of other services.”

“Like schools and doctors?”

She didn’t answer right away.

“Or like not being deported?”

She flinched, all the confirmation I needed.

“That’s a pretty shitty incentive. What kept them here?”

“What keeps anyone in their job? They worked for us and we paid them in money and benefits. If the situation was not to their liking, they could leave.”

I nodded toward the paperback. “Is that what she did?”

Lisa shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t keep track of everyone who’s done work for me, and even if I did, she doesn’t work for me anymore. Does your boss know where you are right now?”

I shook my head, an expression of frustration, but Lisa misread it. “See, I don’t know why you think I can help you with these things.”

“And what about your boss’s wife?”

“Do you know where your boss’s wife is right now?”

I fought an instinct to clench my fists, to lose my temper. “Where did the identities you used come from?”

“That wasn’t my job. My boss gave them to me, and I created the documentation they needed.”

“Seems like an awful lot of work. Why not use people who come with ready-made identities?”

“It’s hard to find citizens who will work certain jobs for what the market will pay them.”

“Hold on.” Here it was. “What jobs did they do for you? Other than pose for book covers.”

She met my eyes. “Some cleaned houses. Some took care of children. Some took care of men.”

Something inside me twisted, and I tasted bile. I swallowed, and drew a few breaths to steady myself. A picture was emerging, clear and dark and ugly. “And that’s where the money came from,” I said. “The publishing company lost money, but that was the plan. You had a whole staff of women whose salaries went straight to you, minus the taxes, and you could classify that money as profits for the books and everything would be in order, and who would report you? You gave foreign women a chance to stay in the country in exchange for a lifetime of slavery.”

She shook her head. “That’s not what slavery is,” she said, almost gently, as though correcting a child. “A number of women agreed to work for us; they could leave whenever they wanted. They stayed because it was a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

“Mutually beneficial! Did they get to keep their old IDs?” And then, as the thought occurred to me: “Did their new IDs have their own pictures on them?”

She shrugged. “They made a choice. Most of us have parts of our jobs that we don’t particularly enjoy, or we don’t get paid what we think we’re worth. It’s always a trade-off.”

I passed women who looked like Lisa Willingdon every day on the street or in a supermarket without a second glance, and now I took a long sip from my mug of coffee, because I couldn’t look at her. Not because she was involved in the disappearance of Anoushka Thomas and Harsha Gill’s imposter and the children – I’d known that days earlier – but because it had cost her nothing, not respect, not peace of mind, not even her idea of who she was. Women and children could disappear at safe distances from perfectly ordinary people who sat at kitchen tables, sipping coffee and waiting for their unemployment benefits to come in; ordinary people who felt at most mild regret that a mutually beneficial arrangement hadn’t worked out as planned.

I set my coffee back on the table, and let my eye wander past Lisa, to a desk in the corner where a laptop sat open, a constellation of pixels dancing on the screen. I walked over to it and jiggled the mouse.

“What are you doing?”

I forced myself to meet her gaze. “Log yourself on for me, would you?”

“Excuse me?”

I sighed. “This is part of our mutually beneficial arrangement, Lisa: I benefit by seeing if there’s anything of use to me on your computer, and you benefit by me not dragging the authorities into this mess. We both win.”

“You won’t find anything. I didn’t work from home much, and when I did, it was just strictly Heartland of Alberta business, totally legit.”

“Then you have nothing to worry about.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but evidently thought better of it, because she reached past me, swung the laptop around, jabbed a few keys, and pushed it back toward me. “How long is this going to take?”

“As long as it takes. I work faster when I don’t have someone hovering over me.”

She scowled, but retreated to the table.

I didn’t find anything of interest, not right away. Her work email contained a folder that held a few dozen correspondences between her and the writers. They followed a predictable pattern: a query from the writer, followed by an acceptance letter, dated a few days later, from Lisa. The latter were identical, save the recipient’s name and the title of the submitted work: every manuscript was populated by characters that “jumped off the page” and scenes that “smoldered”; and Heartland of Alberta was offering to pay the author five thousand dollars, plus royalties. From there followed a back-and-forth where Lisa and the author worked out logistics, and every now and again an impatient writer wondered when she (or, in one case, he) would see a copy of the book. There were a few rejection letters; I assumed these were for readable manuscripts. A handful of emails addressed to M. Thomas at a heartlandofalberta.ca domain informed him that Lisa was ill, or would be coming in late. There was no other correspondence with Manny. I cursed under my breath.

Another folder, labeled “work-photos”, contained the expected; in one subfolder, I recognized the photo from the cover of Dowry, along with several others that fit with the same general theme. Another subfolder contained digital copies of the covers themselves. I opened a handful of those, abandoning the exercise when I saw that the others were just more of the same.

She was meticulously organized, and careful. Every file, as far as I could tell, was sorted and labeled with easy access in mind; I doubted any would elicit a second look by an auditor. After an hour at the desk I began to wonder if I was going to find anything worthwhile at all. At least I no longer had to worry about money, I thought wryly – except that I did, and more than ever. Insurance. I hadn’t seen the policy, such as it was, but transferring the money was as good as signing a contract.

But I couldn’t dwell on that now. I had work to do.

There were more folders, hundreds of them, all labeled clearly and accurately, all containing perfectly ordinary files. I checked some of the system folders, just to see if she’d hidden anything incriminating there; if she had, she’d done a good enough job as to elude another half an hour of my efforts. I felt my pulse quicken when I came across a folder labeled “timesheets”; the first half dozen, though, didn’t reveal any other names on the publisher’s payroll, and contained only the bare bones of Lisa’s work: hours worked in two-week periods. The address of the office didn’t appear on any of them. I opened all of them anyway, and got nothing but a sore wrist for my efforts.

I don’t remember when I got the idea to open her browser. But within a minute, I’d already found something more useful than I’d uncovered during the past couple of hours of sifting through folders: Lisa’s bank account. She’d conveniently left herself logged in, much as I’d probably done a few weeks earlier; and in sorting through her monthly statements, much as Manny had probably done, I felt like I was restoring a certain balance to the universe. The withdrawals were the usual ones – mortgage, hydro, internet, and some cash taken from ATMs – but the deposits were what interested me. Lisa appeared to have had two sources of income: biweekly payments, going back at least five years, amounting to a comfortable six figures after taxes; and another, smaller series of deposits beginning eight months earlier and ending in March that came every two or three weeks but otherwise didn’t seem to follow as much of a pattern. The former was her regular salary, not bad for a failing company. The second, connected only to a number, was less obvious, but I had my suspicions.

I extracted my phone from my back pocket. A picture of a microphone overlaid by the message Error: file limit exceeded greeted me, and I remembered that I’d set my phone to record my conversation with Lisa. I saved the file under a nondescript name, even though at least half of the recording probably consisted of silence. At the top of the screen, a pair of smaller icons informed me I had accumulated at least one text message and one voice message since I’d last checked. I ignored those, and dialed.

He answered immediately. “Hey, Kathleen. You in Calgary?”

“Yeah.”

“Everything work out okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll tell you about it later. Listen, I need you to help me with something, and it’s kind of urgent.” I looked over my shoulder; Lisa was watching me, eyes narrowed.

“Sure, I’ll see what I can do.”

“I have some account numbers here, with a bank. Would you be able to trace them for me?”

“With First Capital?”

“CIBC. I know you’ve done work for them.”

Lisa had gotten up and was standing behind me now, staring at her records. “You’re going through my banking statements?”

I swiveled the chair around to face her. “Do you mind?” She scowled, but retreated.

“…everything’s encrypted,” Matt was saying. “Of course, there’s communication among banks, such as when a client with one bank withdraws money from another bank’s ATM, but that doesn’t mean I personally have access to account information, even at First Capital, let alone other banks.”

“Oh, come on.”

He didn’t answer right away, and I bit back a smile.

“Do you need this today?”

“Now, if possible.”

“I can’t get it to you this second; there are security procedures. But if I can get a hold of the right people, I can have it to you pretty soon. That okay?”

“If that’s the best you can do.” I read him the account number for Lisa’s benefactor. Then, remembering my manners: “And thank you.”

I returned to the browser, and within a few clicks found Lisa’s personal email account, which she’d also left open. Her inbox was empty, aside from a notice that a cousin had given birth; her Sent folder contained a message of congratulations to the cousin and a few dull exchanges with a man, also named Willingdon, whom I assumed was her husband. Ten minutes of this got me nowhere, so I started searching various phrases in the hopes that Lisa had conducted some of the sketchier aspects of her job from her personal account. My first few queries came up blank; but a search on Thomas delivered a thread containing seven messages between Lisa and the correspondent: not Manny, but Anoushka.

The first was dated nearly a year earlier, and came from Anoushka. It was brief:

I have the documents. As we discussed, $500 now and the rest probably beginning next month.

Lisa’s reply was equally curt.

HG is fairly well known locally. I can do this, but bear in mind, plenty of people know what she looks like.

Anoushka replied within the hour:

Not a concern. I just need them to set up an account.

The next message came from Lisa a few days later, telling Anoushka that everything was settled and “ready to go”. Anoushka replied three weeks later, saying that everything should be going smoothly from now on. I supposed it had for several months, because the next message, from Lisa, didn’t come until April.

What’s going on? We had a deal. You can’t afford to renege. If you’re holding back, you’re the one who has the most to lose. You’ve got a week to sort this out, and you know what will happen after that.

It was more than a week – more than a month, in fact – before Anoushka replied, and if she took the threat seriously, she didn’t show it:

I no longer require your services. Have a nice day.

I stared at the exchange for a few seconds before returning to Lisa’s bank records. The last of the smaller series of deposits had ended three weeks before Lisa’s threat. I then opened Anoushka’s messages, one at a time, in separate tabs. All had been sent from the same account, but the headers told an interesting story: the first three messages appeared to have been sent from Calgary; the fourth, from Ottawa.

Everything fit, and didn’t. If I took the emails at face value, it seemed Anoushka had enlisted Lisa’s help with something – something that involved obtaining identification in Harsha Gill’s name - and this service was apparently worth several thousand dollars over the course of eight months. And then, she had managed to escape to Ottawa, no longer afraid of – of what? Of Manny? Of being exposed? But this left as many questions as it answered. For one: who was the driver I’d met back in April? And two: if Anoushka was alive, what explained the threats to me, to my father? On an impulse, I opened a handful of Lisa’s other messages from around the time she was corresponding with Anoushka, but there was nothing similar to that exchange. Of all the IDs Lisa had created, only this transaction had been handled through her personal account; and only this one had generated a separate cash flow for her.

My thoughts were interrupted by my buzzing phone. I didn’t recognize the number, so I sent the call to voicemail and copied Lisa and Anoushka’s emails to a text file. I then started sorting through the other documents, wondering if anything would emerge later. I still didn’t have all of the answers, but I what I had was a start.

My phone rang again, and this time I answered it.

“Hi, Kathleen. Matt.”

“Hey, thanks for calling back.” I felt twinge of guilt for not calling him off after I’d found the email thread that had effectively provided the information I’d asked him for, but Lisa’s glare from the kitchen table quelled it immediately.

“I have the account you asked for.”

“Fantastic. I really appreciate it.”

“The name sounded familiar; I think it was one of the ones you mentioned yesterday?”

“Probably. What was it?”

“Harsha Gill.”

I shifted the phone to my other ear. “Wait, what?”

“G-I-L-L. Or is it like ‘Jill’?”

“No, no, that’s fine. Thanks for your help, I really appreciate this.”

“What’s going on?”

“I’m not completely sure myself. Listen, I have to go. But thanks, really.” I disconnected the call before he could object, turned my ringer back off, turned on the voice recorder again, and stuffed the phone back into my pocket.

I stood up, stretched a bit more dramatically than necessary, and returned to the table, where Lisa was pretending to read a newspaper. “Are you finished?” she asked.

“Not yet. I have some more questions. Then, if I’m happy with your answers, I’ll leave.”

Behind me, the computer growled, and Lisa craned her neck to examine it. “What did you do to my laptop?”

“Don’t worry, I didn’t delete anything. I’m just backing up your files to an external hard drive.”

“All of them?”

“No, I don’t need your music. Or your photos from your trip to the Yukon. Everything else, though, yeah. Anyway, this could take a while. Could I have some more coffee?” When she didn’t move, I said, “Listen, Lisa, I’ve had a long day and I’m feeling slow and a bit sluggish. And we have a lot to talk about.”

Five minutes later, over a fresh cup of coffee, I was summarizing, as much for my benefit as for Lisa’s, “Here’s what I have so far: your boss had a supply of foreign women who worked for decent wages but who wouldn’t complain if they had to accept a lot less, so you pocketed the difference through a front company. He got the women, and you provided them with IDs so that they could work in Canada. I get that part. But you also did some freelancing, for Anoushka. What was that about?”

She wouldn’t break my gaze, but it was nearly a minute before she spoke. “She approached me,” she said finally. “She married him right around the time he started the business. He probably told her it was an employment agency or something, and that he had a side business in publishing, but eventually she must have figured it out, because last year she hired me to do exactly what he hired me to do.”

“To create an ID for someone who would work for money that would go to her. Minus your cut.” She must have figured it out, but she didn’t report him. Or threaten him. Because she was both afraid of him and dependent on him. And because she needed her own money to leave.

“Right.” Lisa sighed. “So I did it. It was easy money, and it wasn’t any different from anything else I’d done. But Anoushka didn’t have her husband’s experience. Don’t ask me how he found the identities, because he never told me; he just gave them to me. But they were airtight. Dead people, people who’d left the country, that kind of thing. No one who’d miss it. Certainly not a local celebrity who’d turn the whole thing into a circus and destroy the business.”

“Destroy the business,” I repeated. “What about Anoushka? Where is she now?”

“I already told you: I have no idea. She knew that if she stopped the payments, I’d tell her husband. So after a month of nothing, I did. But by then, the office had been closed, I’d been laid off, and he didn’t even seem to care, anyway.”

“When was this?”

“April.”

“And when was the last time you saw Anoushka?”

“Last year, when she had me create the IDs. After that she just called or emailed me. We had no reason to meet. As long as she kept paying.”

I nodded. Outside the window, a set of wind chimes jangled lethargically. “And the woman using Harsha’s identity? When did you last see her?”

“I never met her.”

“Never?”

She shook her head.

“Do you have a photo of her?”

“No. I wouldn’t recognize her if I saw her.”

“Then how did you create an ID for her?”

“I used Anoushka’s picture. Honestly, I have no idea who she was. You know almost as much as I do. I’m guessing Anoushka used the Gill ID to open a bank account, sent the woman to earn money so she could fill it, and that was that. Anoushka controlled the account. The other woman probably never needed ID of her own, except to work.”

“I take it that’s how it worked for the other slaves.”

“I told you, they weren’t slaves. No one was holding a gun to their heads.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. “Fine. Back to the other woman. It wasn’t the one on the cover of Dowry?”

“I told you, I don’t know who the other woman was. But probably not. The Dowry woman already worked for us.”

“And what happened to her?”

“For crying out loud, I don’t know. How many times do I have to tell you?”

“Fine. You don’t know. And if you had to guess?”

“I. Don’t. Know.” She stood up, carried her coffee mug over to the kitchen sink, and turned back to face me. “I’ve told you everything I know. Manny kept me in the dark about his half of the business. Do you have any questions you haven’t already asked? Because if not, I’d really like to get on with my day.”

The laptop had stopped humming. I yanked out the cable for my hard drive and tossed both into my backpack. “That’s probably it for now. I might have more later.”

She followed me to the door. “Well, nice chatting. Next time give me more notice if you plan to drop by. I can clean the place up, that sort of thing.”

I slipped on my shoes, and then another thought occurred to me. “What do you think happened to Anoushka’s slave? She’s not making money anymore.”

She shrugged. “My guess is, she’s no longer in town. Either she returned home or she was killed by someone she worked for who got angry at her. But before you ask, I have no idea who that would be. Anoushka controlled her bank account and didn’t give me access.”

I nodded. It made a horrible kind of sense. “And Anoushka and her kids? If you had to guess.”

This time her answer came immediately. “Left town.”

I shook my head. “Then why did the business collapse right around then? It doesn’t make any sense. If she’s safe and happy and her husband knows where she is, what does he have to hide? Why the threats? And if she’s hiding from him, and he wants to find her? Then he should be stringing me along, pumping me for information, because I want the same thing.” I thought of Julia, who had Anoushka’s new address and a letter from her son, but had not seen or spoken with either. “Lisa. She’s disappeared, gone. Let’s say she’s dead. Who do you think is responsible?”

She gave another shrug. “Probably Manny. Or if not him, someone he paid a whole lot of money.” She held my gaze for a few seconds. “You should be off now. I assume you’ll be keeping our chat private.”

I tried to keep my face impassive, and then nodded as I turned to leave.

It was past four o’clock when I stepped onto Lisa’s driveway, and I remained there for a few moments, squinting against the light. Without a task to keep me busy, I was suddenly and painfully aware of my body. I’d had nothing to eat since breakfast, and in the afternoon heat, my hunger announced itself as dizziness and as physical pain. I rubbed my temples, and turned over the last few hours in my mind. I’d come to Calgary for money and for information. I now had more of both than I’d ever wanted; and I didn’t know what to do with either. All I knew was that I was going to have to see this through to the end, whatever that entailed. A day earlier, I could have told my father what had happened, and he’d have taken care of me. But a day earlier, I hadn’t known the nature of the insurance that Manny had purchased from me. Now I had no choice but to make sure he had no occasion to cash in the policy.

Lisa hadn’t answered all of my questions, but she’d answered plenty, and I believed her when she’d told me she had nothing else to share. Julia, however, might; my plan was to visit her in person and gain her trust by sharing what I’d learned that afternoon.

I took out my phone to call a cab, and I saw that I still had some messages I hadn’t checked. Four: one text, and three voice. The text was a brief note from my father: Are you all right? Where are you? The first voice message, also from him, came five minutes later, and contained the same questions. The next, an hour afterward, sought the same information in a more panicked tone, and detailed the steps my father had taken to obtain it: I called St. Paul’s but they said you weren’t there, so I called the hospital over on Oak, the General, and they didn’t know either, and…

My stomach clenched. This was not my father’s typical worrying. What had Lisa been doing during those hours I had been searching her computer? With trembling hands, I retrieved the fourth message, sent two hours after the third. It took me a few seconds to place the woman’s voice, even as it came as inevitable. “Kathleen, please call as soon as you can. I’m at the hospital with your father. He’s worried sick about you – literally worried sick, and they’re taking a look at him, probably going to keep him overnight. Please let us know if you’re all right. If you are, it’ll be a relief to your father, but I’ll tell you right now: he may not have the strength to yell at you, but I do –”

I phoned the cab company I’d used earlier, gave Lisa’s address, and told them I needed a taxi to the airport as soon as possible. Then I returned Mrs. Chandler’s call, assured her I was safe, and sat down on the curb as she detailed the traumas of the past few hours.

I took in every word. It was the least I deserved.

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