MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 39

I slept until nearly ten the next morning, fuzzy-minded through some combination of booze, jetlag, and an unfamiliar mattress. When I’d gotten my bearings, I bolted out of the bed, ran a quick shower, and headed down to the lobby. I wasn’t late yet, but I would be if I didn’t hustle. I grabbed a plastic-wrapped bagel and cheese sandwich from the shop in the lobby and scarfed it down as I waited for the valet to bring me my car.

It took me ten minutes in light traffic to arrive back at Arlington Woods Public School. A few minutes of research the previous evening revealed that the school took security seriously: their website promised as much, with a list of bullet points outlining the measures taken to keep the children of concerned parents safe. During the day, the exterior doors were locked, with the exception of one that took visitors directly past the office, where there was a sign-in procedure similar to the one I’d encountered back at Abbeydale Primary School. But in what was either a significant oversight or a sign of the times, nearly every detail about the day-to-day operation of the school, including a vast archive of newsletters, was accessible to anyone who could be bothered to look. A dispatch from the previous September helpfully provided a schedule of recess times, and from there I learned that the kindergarteners and junior kindergarteners had the playground from 10:45 until 11:00, five days a week.

I parked a few blocks away, and by twenty to eleven, I was wandering past the fence that enclosed the monkey bars and swings and slides. When the bell sounded, I slowed my pace as fifty or sixty small children burst through the doors, the primly-dressed young women behind them not even attempting to hold them back.

The children scattered across the yard, the fastest ones claiming the swings, and those just behind latching onto the monkey bars and scrambling up the play structure. A teacher stationed herself a few feet from me, between the fence and the swing set. I moved aside to get a clearer view of the yard, trying to summon an image of the little brown boy whose school photo I’d seen for only a few seconds, so many weeks ago.

I had fifteen minutes to take in the scene before the recess bell rang again. The two teachers on duty had turned their backs to me, so I stepped up to the fence for a closer look. Within seconds I felt deflated. It had been foolish of me to think I would be able to identify a child I’d never up close.

Focus, Kathleen. You don’t have to find him now. If he’s not here, you can stake out the bank machine around the corner. You have enough time and enough money that if this takes more than a day, it’s okay.

I squared my shoulders and turned back to the playground. I didn’t need to consider the girls, or the children with light hair or skin. That left around a dozen boys, of whom roughly half could have been him. But the five- and six-year-olds kept moving, by the time I’d taken inventory of one segment of the yard, they’d reshuffled themselves and I no longer had a fix on the five or six possibilities.

I squinted. This was stupid, this was futile, I didn’t even know what I was looking for or what I wanted to find, or…

Focus. He might not even be here. But if he is – what do you know about him? What would he be wearing? What would…

I scanned the playground again, and this time my eye fell on a small brown boy with a thatch of ink-black hair, crouching behind a tree just a few feet from me. He was wearing dark green shorts, a T-shirt with a picture of a dinosaur on it, and a brand-new pair of sneakers. It was an outfit utterly indistinguishable from dozens of others nearby. What made my breath catch was the accessory, the only one like it in the yard: on little boy’s right wrist was a bright red Lego watch.

I don’t know how long I stood there, statue-still. The other children, running and climbing and swinging and sliding, were background characters now, and I didn’t move until the boy with the red watch stood up and scrambled under the spiral slide. I jogged over to the far end of the fence for a better view, no longer mindful of the supervising teachers. From my new vantage point, I saw the boy’s eyes track someone’s motion, probably another child’s; soon he bounced up, but wasn’t able to pick up speed quickly enough. A blonde girl with her hair in pigtails reached toward him, and her hand easily made contact with his shoulder. “Gary’s It!” she crowed.

The boy turned to face her, and his face broke into a shy smile. The girl giggled, and then took off for the swings, savouring her immunity. Gary remained in place for a few seconds, scoping out the scene for his next target. Apparently he found one, because before I was ready for him to leave my sight, he’d bolted toward the other side of the field.

I remained in place until the recess bell rang again, and then watched as the teachers funneled the children back into the building, herding a few strays into the group. Near the back, Gary and the blonde girl had fallen into step: a temporary truce forged until the next recess. I watched them return to the school, and I watched their teachers follow behind them, and then when I’d seen everything I’d come to see, I stood at the fence for another minute and watched the empty playground.

They had a second recess after lunch. I returned to Greenbank Plaza and parked with a clear view of both the bank and the grocery store, wolfing down a sub as I kept an eye out for the Indian woman I knew was a regular customer at both. She didn’t show, so I headed back to the school, on foot this time, in time to see the kindergarten students spill onto the play structure again. This time Gary was at the front of the pack, and made a beeline for the tire swing. He stood upright on the wheel, and within a few seconds three other children joined him: the blonde girl, a dark-haired boy who joined him on the tire, and a sandy-haired kid whose gender I couldn’t discern who spun the trio around. After a minute, the girl ceded her place to the sandy-haired child and took over spinning duties. They kept this up for a few minutes without guidance, and then one of the teachers approached them and gave an instruction I couldn’t hear. The four vacated the tire and a new group settled in, and then Gary led the other three children to the slides.

The bell rang at a quarter to one, just a few seconds after Gary had settled into one of the six swings. He scraped his sneakers against the sand to bring his swing to a stop, slid off, and stood by as his three friends joined him. He didn’t dawdle, but nor did he seem to be in a rush to get back. In the twenty or so minutes I’d been watching him, he hadn’t checked his watch a single time.

I returned for the 2:15 recess, but after a few minutes of watching the game of tag, headed back to the plaza. None of the adults supervising the children at this school that apparently took security very seriously had seen me observing the children from the other side of the fence, but I’d found what I’d come to find and needed to come back at least once more; sticking around wasn’t worth the risk.

Back at the plaza, I found a thrift shop, and handed over seventy-five dollars in play money for a blouse, a pair of slacks, a cheap pair of oversized sunglasses, a floppy hat, and a handbag: the sort of outfit I thought, possibly even correctly, that a young mother would wear. The day had resolved itself into a bright, sticky heat, and I tossed the bag into the passenger seat and ran the air-conditioning as I scoped out the bank and supermarket again. No woman I was looking for, and no car I recognized, entered or exited during the forty-five minutes that followed, so I drove back to the hotel, changed into my new costume, took several deep, measured breaths, and returned to the school.

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