MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 38

He insisted on driving me to the airport. As we pulled out of the driveway, I spotted a grey car, which hung back for a few seconds before pulling up a few meters behind us. My breath caught before I remembered the security guard I’d hired to watch my father. I wondered whether to tell him, but decided to alert Mrs. Chandler instead: my father, for all his worrying, only noticed what he was looking for, and he didn’t worry about things he didn’t notice.

But he worried about me – “when I don’t know where you are” had been his words, and with that in mind, I’d set up an app on my phone for him to track me, and I’d promised to turn my phone on as soon as my plane landed. And that, he could track as well: I supplied the airline and fight number, and I watched the trembling in my father’s hands subside as he saw that from three time zones away, he’d know my whereabouts to the meter.

I waited until he’d pulled up to the airport before handing him an envelope. “No one wants to hurt me,” I reminded him, “because hurting me will only hurt them. This is my insurance. Keep it nearby.”

His eyes flashed. “What is this?” He fingered the seal. “Should I open it?”

“No. Not now. Probably not ever.”

The previous evening, I’d updated the file I’d created a few weeks earlier with everything I knew about everyone I’d spoken to: Harsha Gill, Carol Patterson, Raffi Galiano, and Amy Blenheim. All bit players, as it turned out. I’d deleted nearly everything I’d written about them, except the details about Amy’s income and her relationship with Heartland of Alberta, as well as Harsha’s contact information, to which I’d stapled a printout of her tax forms. I added an entry for Julia, with her email and home addresses as well as her phone number, and I included a note that she had Anoushka’s address; to this I stapled the scanned police report. The last page, which had taken me the longest and had been the most difficult to write, was a detailed report of my meeting with Lisa, with her contact information bolded at the top of the page. With Manny unreachable, Lisa was the lynchpin of this case; but I knew that she was smart and resourceful enough that by now, she could be just as difficult to reach as he was. For the tenth time or so since this had begun, I wondered if I should have gotten the authorities involved earlier. But it was too late now: “too late” having first occurred when I’d accompanied Harsha to the police station, and then when I’d involved Matt, and again when I’d claimed tens of thousands of dollars I knew I hadn’t earned.

“What’s in this?” my father repeated.

“Details of what I told you. Contact information. Documents. Listen – I don’t have firm plans yet, but I’ll always let you know where I’ll be going and how long I’ll be there. And you’ll be able to track me. If my plans and location don’t match, call the Ottawa Police and send them to where I am. That’s their number on the front, and the name of a cop who’s involved. But, Dad, listen: if I run into anyone who wants to hurt me, the first thing I’m going to do is tell them that you have this envelope and that what’s inside will ruin their lives.” I finished with an out-and-out lie: “So I’m not worried. And you shouldn’t be either.”

He opened his mouth to speak, and then jumped when an officer tapped on his window. “Sir, we need to keep traffic flowing. Please let your passenger out and then leave the area.”

I leaned over to give my father an awkward hug, grabbed my bag from the backseat, and hurried through the sliding doors without looking back. I knew that if I turned around, I would have run back to the car before it merged with the early morning drop-offs and disappeared back into the quiet neighbourhood in Maple Ridge.

My plane landed shortly before five; by five-thirty I was slouched in the driver’s seat of a rental car in the airport parking lot, texting my father and then poring over the directions I’d printed out the night before. I’d booked two nights, an optimistic minimum, at a Holiday Inn on Robertson Road, around half an hour from the airport, and ten minutes from the plaza where Anoushka’s bank card had seen most of its recent activity. I had deliberately chosen the most expensive hotel. I didn’t care about the size of the television or the room, or about the indoor pool, or about room service. I cared only about making the fifty thousand dollars disappear as quickly as possible; penance for a sin I couldn’t yet name.

I had nothing that would lead me directly to my destination. I only had a few ideas, but I was confident they would produce an address sooner or later. Despite being in a strange city with no real plan, I felt oddly calm. Tenacity had gotten me this far; patience would see me to the end. It seemed so easy, this part, easy enough that I wondered if I was missing anything. My father’s words came back to me: Are you prepared for whatever you find? I hadn’t answered him directly. But the missing women and children loomed larger by the day, and I knew I was unprepared to live the rest of my life without learning what had become of them.

A tense forty minutes of navigating rush hour traffic brought me to the hotel; there, I handed a clerk my new credit card, which she processed without ceremony, and checked in to a sterile room. I phoned my father to tell him my plans for the evening; he asked a few questions, interspersed with commentary and suggestions I’d already considered and dismissed. I didn’t interrupt him. When he was finished, I told him I didn’t expect to find anything significant before the next morning. “I’ll let you know if anything changes, though. It’s already dinner time here, though.” He went on for a few more minutes about his day: Mrs. Chandler had invited him over for tea, and then for a walk. “She’s in much better shape than I am, you know. She swims and does yoga and aerobics. I told her I didn’t want to slow her down. She said she was happy for the company.” His ramblings were as soothing as a lullaby.

I didn’t become aware of my stomach rumbling until I hung up. I took the yellow folder out of my bag, headed back to the car, and drove the ten minutes to the plaza with Anoushka’s bank and grocery store. I spent a few minutes wandering through the parking lot looking for a beige Honda Civic, or any car with the licence plate I’d seen in Calgary. I wasn’t expecting it to be in the lot, and it wasn’t; and I felt a measure of relief at having been absolved of any responsibility to act, at least for the day.

A headache was beginning to set in. I abandoned my car and the search for the Honda, and entered the one licensed restaurant in the plaza. There, I took a seat at the bar and forced myself to wait until I’d made some progress on a burger and fries before ordering an ale. I barely tasted the food, but felt every drop of the drink. When I finished, I summoned the waitress, but before she saw me, I slipped a twenty dollar bill under my glass and exited the restaurant. No one said anything as I left.

I left my car in the parking lot, now nearly empty, as I let the drink work its way through me. A Google search the previous evening had revealed two elementary schools within a short walk of the plaza, and one a bit further afield. I headed toward the closest one, Arlington Woods Public School, two blocks north on Greenbank. School had long since ended for the day, but the gate to the fence surrounding the playground was unlocked, and a pair of teenagers huddled together under a set of monkey bars. I hung back, not wanting to interrupt the young couple.

I didn’t need to. Even from the other side of the fence, I had a clear view of the playground. Beside the monkey bars, a tire hung from three chains on a wooden frame. A few feet down was a row of six swings, and on a platform beside them, another pair of teenagers descended on separate slides: a concave half-tube, and a yellow spiral.

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