MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 7

The next Monday, I, displaying a level of initiative that had thus far been absent from my dealings with Roger, remarked that the employees at the Calgary seed cooperative might benefit from some hands-on training on the new database during the transition to opening their Vancouver office. Sanjay had been pleased with my progress, and concurred with my assessment of the Calgary staff: an approximately even split between people who hated technology and ones who merely feared it. The latter group appreciated my detailed email instructions on the use of the database, but a few subtle comments from me were all it took for their office to offer to fly me down to Calgary to instruct them in the use of their new data management system.

My real reason for wanting to go to Calgary, though, had surfaced in my inbox the previous day.

From: Harsha Gill [[email protected]]
Subject: car accident

Hello,

Thank you for your card. I apologize for any trouble I caused and will do my best to help you. I would like to meet with you in person, if possible. Weekday evenings are best for me.

Harsha Gill

She hadn’t provided a phone number, and I found myself staring at the screen for far longer than it took to read the brief message. What on earth was there to discuss, and why did it have to be done in person? I cursed myself for my open-ended offer of help, which I never would have made if I had thought anyone would take it at face value. Nevertheless, a trip to Calgary, especially on the company dime, was a small price to pay for a police report. After I confirmed my trip, I replied to Harsha Gill, again giving my phone number and expressing relief that she was safe. I thought of asking why she wanted to see me in person, but I worried that she might retract her invitation, so I didn’t.

The flight to Calgary went smoothly, and it was a brief if nervous drive to the seed cooperative’s office. As for the meeting with the seed people themselves, I was grateful that I had enough experience both in designing intuitive interfaces, and training technologically-challenged people on database use, that I was able to justify the expense of the return flight and the car rental even as I anxiously counted down the minutes to my six o’clock meeting with Harsha Gill.

I’d been anticipating this meeting for over three days. Usually, I mentally walk myself through meetings before they take place, my imagination supplying everything from the décor of the venue to the conversation that would follow. Usually the imagined event aligns only loosely with the reality, but by and large, the basics – general participants, general flow of conversation – I get right. This time, though, I had nothing, because I couldn’t even summon an internally consistent mental picture. The image of a meeting of a mother with two small children – house in slight disarray, the smell of child-friendly meals lingering in the kitchen, perhaps a gate or two to keep the toddler confined to various play areas – didn’t mesh with my memory of a woman, at once frightened and in control, who’d fled an accident. At five fifty-eight I ascended the steps to the ivy-lined house on 10A Street and knocked on the door with no expectations of anything.

No one answered. I glanced down at Roger’s yellow folder to make sure I’d gotten the address right – yes, 221 10A Street, the very house to which I’d successfully sent a card to Harsha Gill. I waited a few seconds before descending, and then I saw the path leading to the backyard.

Around the back of the house was a second door, in much poorer condition than the one at the front, leading down a half-flight of crumbling concrete stairs. I knocked, and was at once greeted by a young, short-haired, dark-skinned woman who looked vaguely familiar, but whom I certainly hadn’t encountered at a gas station a few weeks earlier. Nevertheless, she didn’t seem at all confused to see me, and greeted me warmly: “You must be Kathleen. Come on in.”

I entered, dumbly taking in my surroundings, and realized that I hadn’t gone in without expectations after all. But my expectations had all been negative. I hadn’t expected my host’s home to be so small – it was perhaps the size of my own apartment, some six hundred square feet. I hadn’t expected it to be quiet. I hadn’t expected the kitchen to smell of garlic. I hadn’t expected all the shoes at the door to be adult-sized, or the furniture to be glass and leather. This looked like an apartment belonging to a single person, or perhaps a childless couple.

“Would you like some tea?” asked the woman.

“That’d be great,” I said absently. I settled into a chair at the kitchen table, and watched my host fill a teapot with boiling water and assemble a pair of cups and saucers at the table. She moved with a quiet ease, as though this evening was playing out in precisely the way she had planned and nothing needed to be explained or clarified. I waited another minute or so, but she offered nothing, and sat down at the table to sip her tea. Another minute went by, and when it became clear that the evening would progress in this manner unless I did something about it, I decided to concede the bizarre game of chicken and enlist the woman’s assistance in making sense of the scene. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t catch your name.”

And at this the woman met my eye, smiled and said, “I never introduced myself.” A moment’s pause, then a broader smile. She was enjoying herself. “I’m Harsha Gill.”

I stared, dumbstruck. A flurry of reactions surfaced and faded in sequence. In quick succession: oh, I must have the wrong address, I was looking for another Harsha Gill – but of course this was the right address, it was the very address the other driver had handed me herself, not to mention the one at which my ill-conceived greeting card had arrived – you look awfully different – stupid, this clearly wasn’t the same person, but the mind works in odd ways when trying to reconcile expectations with reality – and, most ridiculous of all, a comically petulant no, you’re not Harsha Gill. But now she was smiling slyly, and I knew exactly who she was.

“Was anyone hurt?” she asked.

“What?”

“The car accident.”

“Oh. Um, no, no one was hurt. Just a fender bender.”

“That’s good. So she just drove away afterwards.”

“Pretty much.”

Harsha nodded. Her body was relaxed, fluid, like an actress in a scene she’d written for herself. She took another sip of tea, looked around. Another minute or so passed, and I wondered if we’d be sitting here all night sipping tea if I didn’t say anything. But then she spoke: “My wallet was stolen last fall.” She looked into her tea, swirled the liquid around, and met my gaze again. “Not the purse, just the wallet. It took me a few days to realize it, because I was sick for a few days. Like really sick, didn’t leave home at all, sent my boyfriend out when I needed food and medicine and everything. Then when I got better, I dug around, and it was gone. The wallet. Last place I’d been was a coffee shop, and I’d been reading, lost in thought, I guess, so someone must have taken it then.”

I nodded. She had brought me here to tell me this. I remained silent.

“So when I found out the wallet was gone, I called up the bank, reported the loss, cancelled all the credit cards and everything. Asked about what had been charged to the cards. It had been, what, four days by then? I figured someone had run them up, you know? But…nothing. Not a penny.”

I nodded again, and waited.

“I reported the theft to the police,” she continued, “but it had been days, hundreds of people going in and out of the coffee shop, and no one using my credit cards. Someone lifts my wallet from my purse, leaves the purse, I don’t figure this out for days, and meanwhile they don’t do anything.”

“Except use your driver’s licence.”

“Except use my driver’s licence. Eight months later.” She let that hang for a minute, and went back to the tea.

Something suddenly occurred to me. “She didn’t file a claim. Or – she didn’t, right? She got into an accident with me and then didn’t file a police report.” Thinking aloud here. “And you can’t file a claim without a police report, that’s what the rental agency told me, and she didn’t file the police report.”

Harsha nodded. “Someone took my credit cards and ID, and didn’t use the credit cards. Or take advantage of the fact that they could basically get their car fixed for free, let me deal with the insurance premiums. I checked: insurance hasn’t heard from her. Before I got your letter I assumed my credit cards and ID had ended up in a dumpster.”

I closed my eyes. I had flown to this city, driven to this home to get a police report, and I was going to leave without one. “And here I am,” I said, like the dupe I apparently was, “Having seen the person who was using them. Your only lead.”

“Yeah.” She was staring at me now. “Could you describe her?”

Dark-skinned. Long, long dark hair. The enlarged, misshapen pupil. Thin, and barely five feet tall, if that. Early thirties or so. Driving a Beige Honda Civic. Two small children, maybe five and three years old, in the back seat. The image had been seared into my mind’s eye two weeks earlier, and I could summon it at will, as clearly as I could summon an image of my father, or myself.

“In detail,” I said at last. “But I didn’t get on a plane to help a stranger find someone who grabbed her wallet and lifted her driver’s licence. I came for a police report so that I can collect on an insurance claim without triggering an investigation. You lied to get me here, though I suppose you’ve had a lot of practice.” I stood up, the chair scraping against the kitchen floor, angry at myself for having been drawn in so easily.

Harsha flinched at this, and then sat up straight. “What are you talking about?” she asked, but the question wasn’t indignant. She knew the answer.

“He lives here?” I asked.

Another squint. “What?”

“The boyfriend. I guess those are his shoes there, right? He works late?”

“Yeah, but…um.” She closed her eyes, shook her head. It was over.

“That’s great. This is the guy who nursed you to health eight months ago after your wallet got snatched, right? Sounds like a keeper.”

She opened her mouth to say something, but seemed to think better of it.

“And yet it seems you’re still on the market. Publicly. I know that, so I assume he knows it. And if he knows it, he’s okay with it. But it’s all a lie, isn’t it?”

Silence. She knew exactly where this was going.

“Well, listen, this is hardly my area of expertise, but you want my advice, hold on to that man. A young immigrant woman like you isn’t likely to do much better. Somewhere or other I got the impression that all the single white men in Calgary are rednecks, and the Indian guys are hopelessly old-fashioned.”

She gazed down at the table, picked up the cup of tea again. She swirled it in her hand for a few moments, giving the liquid considerably more attention than it deserved. This time, I decided to wait out the silence, and at last she looked up, gave a half-smile, and said, “People in Vancouver read my column?”

I stared at her for a second, and then laughed. “Google reads your column. I phoned the number I got at the accident. It got me nowhere, so I looked you up – well, looked up your name. Everything’s out there. For what it’s worth, you’re a good writer. Even better than I thought, if you’re creating everything from scratch. But I’m through here.”

“Hold on.”

I stopped.

“You can describe this woman?”

“Well enough for anyone who’s ever seen her to recognize her. But forget it. I don’t owe you anything and I don’t give a shit about your wallet.”

She looked down, chewed on her lip. When she looked up again, she was smiling. “What if I got you a police report?”

“What are you talking about?”

“You were in an accident with someone with my name, carrying my licence. As far as the cops know, it was me. So I go in and report it – a bit late, but whatever – and you get what you need for your insurance claim. And all you need to do in return is describe the woman you saw to me. If I were you, I’d take that deal.”

I remained frozen in place.

“So? What do you say?”

“If you report the accident,” I said slowly, “you can’t go report a sighting and give a description of the woman in the car to the police. Because you’ll be on record as being that woman.” And my heart caught at the realization that I wasn’t rejecting Harsha’s suggestion outright; that I was pointing out a mere technicality.

She narrowed her eyes, and went back to the cup of tea for a full two minutes. I checked my watch: a quarter to seven. I willed myself not to hurry her along. At last she stood up, picked up a cell phone, scrolled down a list of contacts until she found what she was looking for, and carried on half of a conversation with her back to me. From it, I was able to discern that her conversation partner, who was named Raffi, would “get the story” if he were to help her; from this I inferred that Raffi was a friend of hers from the newspaper, presumably one who filed true stories. I caught only a few words that followed - among them, “artist” and “yeah, there’s a story there...listen, I can’t tell you now, but I will – listen, I promise” – but it was mostly nods and one-word assents on Harsha’s end. Partway through the nods and yeses, she covered the mouthpiece and asked me to confirm that I could give a good description of the other driver. I assured her I could. A minute later, whatever deal was in the works had apparently been sealed, and Harsha signed off with a promise of “Yeah, whatever the going rate is, I’ll get...okay, sure...Here would be best, if not then at his place......no, not at the station. Okay. Bye.”

With that, she hung up, turned to put down her phone, but thought better of it and sent a quick text message instead. She then tossed her phone into her purse, and explained: “Raffi from the paper. Covers local stuff, mostly crime. It’s less interesting than it sounds. Anyway, he’s got connections to the police station, and he’s going to set you up with their sketch artist, who’ll freelance for us. Then I can post the picture we get on my blog, see if we can get an ID of the driver. I have tons of readers, thousands of hits a day. I can make up a story so we don’t even mention the car accident...I don’t have any ideas now, but I can come up with something, don’t worry about that. Anyway –” turning to me now, back in control – “You give the artist the goods, I’ll file a police report for you. Deal?”

She was standing in front of me, shoes on, zipping up her jacket. I nodded, stunned, and she continued, “Then you need to come with me. What?” she demanded, a response to an expression I’d apparently incorrectly figured for neutral. “I’m not stupid. If I leave without you, no way will you still be here when I get home.” I gave a sheepish, you-got-me shrug; my first deception of the evening. “You can tell me exactly what happened at the accident. You filled out one of these the other week, right? So you know what they ask for.” Casual in the request, as though she did this kind of thing every day. Which I suppose she did: she made her living through deception. I wondered if this had been her plan all along, if she’d been playing me this whole time.

I fumbled my way into my jacket and shoes, and then asked, “And the sketch artist? We meet with him after? How long do these things take? I have a flight at eleven.”

“Raffi’s trying to get a line on him. Hopefully we can get him to come over here, otherwise we may have to go over to his place. Either way, we won’t see him at the police station, because this is going to have to be off the books. I can’t go telling one department that I was in a car accident and then go to another saying that no, it was someone else. If we do the sketch officially then there’s going to be a paper trail. No, we get the picture and I blog that we’re looking for this woman for some other reason...like...” – here, the briefest of pauses – “oh, I know, she was a witness at the accident, that puts her at the scene, and she lost something valuable, and we’re trying to find her. Something like that. Anyway. You in or not?”

“Yeah. Um, yeah.” I buttoned up my coat. “You don’t mind bypassing the cops to search for a thief?”

She shrugged. “You have a better idea that still gets you your police report and doesn’t land either of us in trouble?”

I nodded: not in agreement, but in understanding. “Where’s the police station?”

Harsha met my gaze again, smiled, and then laughed. “Are you kidding? I let you drive to the station, you have no reason to come back here. No, you give me your keys.”

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