MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 5

My office phone was flashing when I arrived at work at a quarter to nine on Monday. The message, delivered in secretarial cadence, was cryptic and perfunctory: Linda Chen from National Car Rental wished to address some “inconsistencies” she’d come across in reviewing the file pertaining to a car accident that had involved me, and would I please phone her at my earliest convenience.

Which would be then, before the office filled up and a conversation about a car accident became fodder for gossip. “Inconsistencies?” I asked Linda Chen once I’d navigated the automated system. “Such as...”

A rustle of paper. “Here we go, Ms. Kovalevsky. Yes – we have a police report from you, but none from Ms. Gill.”

“Okay,” I said. Having seen her peel out of the parking lot after the collision, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Harsha Gill hadn’t filled out a police report, and while I found this mildly strange, I didn’t understand the implications or see the relevance. I hazarded a guess: “Does this affect the insurance claim?”

A pause, a beat too long. “Not directly – our fleet is insured for damage, but we are required by law to follow up with all involved parties in order to verify reports. When one of the parties hasn’t filled out a police report, this is a lot more difficult for us to do.”

I waited.

Linda Chen cleared her throat, and continued: “We attempted to follow up with the owner of the other vehicle, but the car isn’t registered to anyone by the name of Gill, nor is Ms. Gill listed under the owner’s insurance policy.”

I waited again, wondering what Linda Chen expected me to say in the middle of these pauses that followed statements rather than questions. My expertise was computer languages, which, unlike their human counterparts, mercifully lacked the room for such phrases as “Well, that’s interesting,” and “Oh, is that so?” I finally settled on a noncommittal “Okay.”

“And we were unable to contact either the owner or Ms. Gill.”

“Is that right.” And then, when she didn’t continue: “Who is the car registered to?” Irritated that she was the one who’d called me and I was the one asking all the questions.

“I’m not at liberty to say.”

“Of course not.” I closed my eyes, kneaded my temples with my free hand. “Ms. Chen, could you tell me where you’re going with this? I mean, insurance covers the damage no matter what, correct? The police report was just so that you could go forward with the claim, yes? And if –” Looking down at the phone, I saw Roger lumber toward my cubicle. I kept my gaze at the phone, lowered my voice and forced a smile into it. “And if the other driver doesn’t fill out a claim,” I continued sweetly, “then that just means that they can’t get their insurance to cover the damage so they pay out of pocket, am I right?”

“Yes and no. A police report is required in order for the insurer to pay out a claim exceeding one thousand dollars. However, when we’re unable to reconcile reports of the same accident – or, in this case, even obtain them – that often suggests fraud, which requires a full investigation and which, for obvious reasons, is not covered by the policy.”

To my left, Roger had parked himself at a nearby workstation, magnanimously giving me a few feet of space while he pretended not to watch or listen. I counted to ten as I considered my next words, continuing during this time to tilt my head in ways that conveyed, I hoped, that I was listening to some important message at the other end and was not to be disturbed. At last I said, as dispassionately as I could muster, “I’m not sure what else you want me to do at this point. I know what happened and the passenger who was with me can confirm the details if necessary. If there’s anything else I can do, you have my contact information, which I also provided in the police report. In the meantime, did you have any other questions for me?”

She didn’t, but assured (cautioned?) me that someone would be in touch with me within the week.

I hung up, which Roger took as a cue to resume his walk to me. I grabbed the phone again, and jabbed the number pad. “Oh, hello there,” I said loudly to the ringtone, “Is this Harsha Gill?” I waited a half-second, and continued, “Oh, great, I’m glad I finally reached you! This is Kathleen Kovalevsky, calling –”

A flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye. I chanced a quick turn of my head: Roger returning to his office. I smiled into the receiver, and counted to ten before hanging up.

Ever since Roger had taken it upon himself to insinuate himself into every aspect of my career, I’d developed my peripheral vision until it had attained a level of acuity that by this point probably rivalled that of several animals that find themselves low on the food chain. I’d managed to get in an hour or so of work designing the database for the seed cooperative when I saw him skulking toward me, and I took this chance to pay a visit to the accounting office.

The accounting office was Sharon Fanning, an efficient middle-aged woman with short grey hair and a formidable collection of dangling earrings. She was on the phone when I entered; she motioned me in and pointed me to a chair. “Kathleen,” she greeted me warmly. “What can I do for you? Nice suit, by the way.”

She was smiling, but it was a conspiratorial grin, not a mocking one. I liked Sharon; I’d gotten on her good side ever since I’d integrated her accounting software with the company’s timesheet software – a simple hack of the payroll app I’d developed at Sanjay’s startup before Stratitech had bought it, and us – and she’d gotten on mine by mocking Roger over some offence I’d long since forgotten. She was wearing an outfit that resembled mine superficially, but on her it looked like genuine professional attire, rather than an awkward aspiration. “Businesswear is expensive, isn’t it?” she continued. “How much did that ensemble cost you, some seven hundred odd dollars?”

This surprised me. After Roger had made it clear that “dressing professionally” was a condition of my continued employment, I’d complied by purchasing a new outfit and then attempting to claim it a business expense. But I hadn’t realized the form had made its way all the way to Sharon. “Out of pocket,” I confirmed.

She shook her head. “You know, he presented it to me, saying” – at this she cast a backward glance to confirm that no one was behind her; confident that no one was, she squared her shoulders and affected a nasal tone, a dead-on impression of Roger when he tries to be authoritative: “‘Miss Kovalevsky is under the impression that Stratitech is to finance her wardrobe.’ And I said, ’Mister Corrigan, Miss Kovalevsky has never filed a frivolous claim before. Perhaps you could tell me why she is suddenly under the impression that Stratitech is to finance her wardrobe?’ I never did get the whole story, he lost me after some song-and-dance about ‘miscommunication’, and I told him that communication can be difficult, but they offer courses to teach people that sort of thing, you know, and there’s no shame being a bit lacking in that department, none of us come out of a box perfect, right?”

“Right, thanks,” I said.

Sharon furrowed her eyebrows. “Kathleen, hon, I couldn’t approve it, though heaven knows I owe you one for the computer program you did up for me. But this could be the year we’re audited! Far’s I’m concerned you can work in your PJ’s, long as you do your job.”

“Yeah, thanks, I did that for a few years. Worked just fine.” There was an awkward silence.

“What brings you here, Kathleen?”

“I need to know about our insurance policy for damage to rental cars.”

Sharon looked up, plainly surprised. Roger, for all his obsession with follow-up and protocol, hadn’t mentioned the accident to the colleague who handles the financial end of the business. “Why? Were you in an accident? You were -” a glance at her calendar – “in Calgary last week, right? The seed company is there. But why did you go with Roger instead of Sanjay?”

“Roger thought that I would benefit from attending a seminar on communication.”

Her mouth froze, open.

“Never mind that.” By now I knew that Roger would have found a way to torture me one way or another; that Sharon had inspired the mode of punishment was irrelevant. Let her think she owed me one. I outlined the relevant facts as succinctly as I could: the accident; the bizarre behaviour of the other driver; the absence of a police report; my (and National’s) difficulty in locating Harsha Gill.

“Goodness,” Sharon said finally. “That’s a tough one. I don’t know what our insurance will do without a police report, but we’ll cover it one way or another. Somehow. You were on your way to the airport, end of the day, you say?”

“Yes, late rush hour.”

“So technically not during the workday.”

“I –” And then it hit me. “So I’m personally liable? But I was only in Calgary because –”

“Kathleen, relax. I’m just considering all the angles. I’ll do what I can to make sure you won’t have to pay out of pocket. And if it comes down to that, I’ll see what we can arrange. If insurance doesn’t cover this, it’ll dent the corporate budget, that’s for sure.”

This I knew – the company’s shaky finances were among the many pieces of classified information to which I was privy, due to my access to the company books - but I held my tongue. “Hopefully it won’t be an issue.”

“I’m sure we can work something out,” she said. She didn’t sound convinced.

In my work life, failure to follow up with clients with the regularity that Roger considered necessary had few, if any, consequences aside from me being harassed by Roger himself. Some clients wanted more contact with the office than others, but I was happy to leave those clients to initiate that contact on their own. Most were satisfied with the progress reports that I delivered on whatever schedule we’d developed upon signing the contract; others preferred forgetting about our agreement altogether until the deadline, at which point they’d survey the output and offer some sort of feedback.

Failure to follow up with Harsha Gill, on the other hand, was proving an entirely different beast. An ostensibly routine car accident obviously wasn’t. An incorrect cell phone number I could overlook; an untraceable car owner and driver, I couldn’t. Nor could I overlook the fact that it was looking increasingly unlikely that I would be able to put this all behind me by filling in the paperwork for an insurance claim. With the circumstances of the accident unexplained, it was a safe bet that this would end up costing my financially-strapped employer money. Otherwise, it would cost me. I would need to follow up with Harsha Gill.

I opened a browser. There were a myriad of H. Gills and even a Harsha Gill in the phone listings for Calgary, but none that corresponded to the address on the driver’s licence. Nevertheless, I wasted a half hour calling all the numbers; two told me they knew a Harsha Gill, or knew of one, but not one that looked like the one I’d described.

One of Calgary’s Harsha Gills had a formidable online presence, including a blog on a local newspaper’s website. Beside the byline, a dark-skinned woman offered the camera a cheeky smile, an expression that I had trouble picturing on the stoic woman I had met a week earlier. A few clicks from the webpage confirmed that this wasn’t my Harsha Gill: this one was a columnist in her mid-twenties, single, childless, and with shoulder-length hair. Archives of her column, available on the local paper’s website and on her blog, formed a week-by-week chronicle of the life of a single young woman living in Calgary. The Vancouver daily had once run a similar column – perhaps it still did; it had been awhile since I’d checked – and I’d seen clones in other cities’ papers. Each episode described a fresh humiliation on the part of the writer at the hands of the local dating scene, and while many featured some nice turns of phrase, they all got old after a while, and I wondered why their writers persisted. This particular column offered an ethnic twist on the young-single-woman theme, but it still took only a glance at a month’s worth of dispatches to learn that the problem with the Indian men her immigrant parents set her up with was that they were old-fashioned, and the problem with the guys she met in clubs was that they were rednecks who saw her as a novelty. Nevertheless, when I next checked the time, I saw that over an hour had passed, and I closed the browser tab, startled and embarrassed to have found this other Harsha Gill’s life so compelling.

I stood up to stretch. My Harsha Gill didn’t seem to exist online, but I had a physical address for her from the driver’s license that Roger had painstakingly reproduced. I spent another hour on the database for the seed cooperative, and then when I saw Roger make his way toward me again, decided to take an early lunch. The pharmacy across the street from the office featured a row of greeting cards, but there didn’t seem to be enough demand to produce even a single one suitable for persuading a driver to file a police report so that an insurance claim on a car accident could be processed. I settled upon one with a nondescript photograph of clouds and a frilly cursive message telling the recipient that the sender was “Thinking Of [Them]”.

At my desk, I composed a 300-word essay in which I: apologized to Harsha Gill for the unfortunate events of the previous week; expressed worry (kinder than ‘frustration’, if less honest) over not having been able to contact her by the phone number she’d incorrectly left; explained the protocol of filing police reports following car accidents; assured her that doing so was not difficult; detailed the consequences (mostly fabricated and involving, variously, her future driving record, criminal record, employment prospects, and credit rating) of not filing a report; and offered to personally do “whatever I could” to make this process easier for her – this last point being, as far as I knew, the sort of offer that polite people always made and that polite people never accepted. I included my email address and phone number before stuffing the card into its envelope, and scrawled my home address on the back. I then returned to my desk, and tried not to think about how much a dented driver’s side door would cost to repair, or why a woman with two small children had vanished so completely after a car accident in which no one had been hurt.

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