MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 8

Traffic turned a five minute drive – my rental car, with Harsha in the driver’s seat – into a fifteen-minute crawl into the downtown core. Which was just as well: Harsha and I had plenty of questions for one another. Hers were more pressing, so we addressed them first. She asked what was involved in filling out a police report, and then quizzed me on the particulars of the accident with both the skill and the drive of a seasoned reporter with a deadline to meet. By that point I was beyond surprise, but was nevertheless impressed. I didn’t have Harsha’s credentials or writing skills, but I knew from a lifetime of lying to my father that the trick to building a convincing lie was to compose a robust story with plenty of details, even if most would never be revealed. Compared to her, I was an amateur.

I remembered the accident clearly; of the few details that were hazy, most had been documented meticulously by Roger, whose yellow folder I’d taken with me. I remarked with amusement the irony that our Director of Customer Engagement, who was such a stickler for procedure, had provided the means to give a false report to the police.

“It’s not a false report,” Harsha said, momentarily taking her eye off the road. “Everything you told me actually happened, right?” When I laughed, Harsha just shrugged.

The next few minutes passed in silence. As we turned into the station, I asked how she’d gotten into the lifestyle column business. She told me that in high school, she’d shown talents for acting and creative writing, but her immigrant parents made it clear they weren’t going to fund such indulgences into adulthood. Her math and science grades, borderline passes, ruled out a respectable career in medicine or engineering, and so the three reached a compromise: Harsha studied journalism in university, eventually parlaying a personal blog into a weekly column at the tabloid, “which turned out not to be a compromise at all,” she explained matter-of-factly, “seeing as the column gig is all acting and creative writing. So it all works out.”

“What do your parents think?” I asked.

She turned her eyes away from the road again, and raised her eyebrows. I dropped the subject. Instead, I asked: “How is it acting?”

“Well, I have to go to the clubs and stuff that I write about,” she explained, as though to a slow child. “People recognize me and say hi, tell me they read my column, sometimes flirt with me,” While I was weighing the benefits and drawbacks of asking the obvious follow-up question, she answered it for me: “I don’t actually have to go home with anyone. The guys who seem interested, I just turn them down. Then I make stuff up about my night. Anyone gets especially forward with me, I write about them. The others don’t mind that they don’t make my column. They probably think they dodged a bullet.”

I nodded. From what I’d read of her columns, I couldn’t see why anyone would want to be a part of them.

The small parking lot didn’t have any spaces for civilians, so Harsha circled the block. “I’ll probably get tired of it eventually,” she continued, “but journalism’s a dying field, and young women who write mostly do blogs and stuff, confessionals. That’s where the market is. The more humiliating the better. If you can’t humiliate yourself, your friends and relatives will do. I read a lot of those online, for research, and so much of it would be better if it was made up. You know? I mean, I write fiction about troglodyte men who troll clubs. The woman who does the lifestyle column in the Winnipeg rag writes about her kids. Last week it was the twelve-year-old son who hates to read, uses the internet instead of going to the library to do his homework. You know, like literally every other kid that age. One time – get this – three hundred words about the fourteen year old daughter who wants to wear makeup to school, but Mom’s worried that that’ll make her acne worse and they had a big fight about it, blah blah blah. And this is supposedly true. Can you imagine your mother doing that?”

“No,” I answered truthfully.

She shook her head, then faced me, reached behind my headrest, and in one swivel of the steering wheel backed us into a parking space. “Say what you will about my questionable ethics, but I’m not humiliating real people for the purpose of entertaining an audience.” There was nothing defensive about her speech. I had no doubt Harsha Gill slept just fine at night.

We stepped out of the car, and Harsha squinted at the meter. “A dollar for fifteen minutes? Shit. How long do you think this’ll take?”

“Took me about fifteen minutes to fill out the form, but I don’t know how long you’ll have to wait.”

Harsha nodded. She reached to her side, looked momentarily confused, and then turned to the car, and noticed her purse on the driver’s seat. She shook her head, checking for traffic before she returned to the driver’s side.

I looked at my watch. Seven o’clock; my flight was at eleven. “I’ll get it,” I said. I extracted a credit card, fed it into the machine, and bought us forty-five minutes while Harsha retrieved her purse. She didn’t thank me, just slung the bag over her shoulder, nodded, pulled up the collar of her coat to shield herself from the wind, and led us into the police station in silence.

The police, happily enough, were content to ignore me while they took Harsha to a room at the back. I spent the next twenty-five minutes solving Sudokus on my phone, and was startled when Harsha emerged, jabbing at hers.

“How’d it go?” I asked.

She didn’t look up, and answered as she finished typing a message: “Fine. Let’s go.”

In the car, I thanked her for her help, but she shrugged it off. I asked to see copy of the police report, and she complied, not at all offended by the request. Everything looked to be in order: entirely consistent with mine, and presumably enough to mollify even a careful insurance adjuster. I was certain her performance had satisfied the officer on duty. Meanwhile, I was still curious about the identity of the other driver, but that was mere curiosity, downgraded from worry. It was no longer something that would elicit an investigation, get in the way of resolving the claim, or otherwise interfere with my life. I thanked Harsha again.

When we arrived, Harsha left my rental car outside her home and pocketed the keys.

Inside the living room, a muscled twentysomething I figured for the boyfriend had claimed the recliner and was fixated on a hockey game. Harsha pecked him on the cheek, and he drew her in for a deeper kiss. She broke away prematurely to study the screen. “Sweet, we’re winning,” she said.

“One nothing and we have the power play,” the boyfriend confirmed. He peered over his shoulder, made eye contact with me, and then pulled Harsha onto his lap.

She kissed him again, nuzzled in closer, and wrapped his arm around her body. I waited this out until the next commercial break, when I pointedly thrust my hand into his line of sight. “Kathleen Kovalevsky.”

He smiled. “Dave Porter. Dave.” No sheepishness at having failed to acknowledge his houseguest; just the same indifferent confidence as Harsha’s. “So you’re one who was in the car accident with the chick with my girlfriend’s ID.”

“That’s me.” The next thirty seconds didn’t elicit any further probing, so I brought in a chair from the kitchen and positioned it between the happy couple and the television screen. A commercial for cat food ended, and Don Cherry and Ron MacLean were back to argue over whether a penalty had been deserved. Harsha and Dave leaned over to see the television around me, but didn’t ask me to move or otherwise react to my presence. I looked at my watch; just past eight. My flight was in less than three hours. They had all the time in the world. Obviously I was missing something.

“So, Harsha,” I said, “I guess the sketch artist is coming here?”

“Mmm-hmm.” The television showed a replay of one hockey player slamming another into the boards and proceeding to pummel him. I had missed the context, but I’d never found context to be terribly helpful in illuminating these things. “That was not a headshot!” yelled Cherry. “Did that look like a headshot to you?” MacLean just shrugged, palms up, as if to say, What can you do?

“What time?” I said.

“It was so not a headshot,” Dave said.

“Harsha!”

She wiggled out of Dave’s embrace, and shifted around to face me, bored. “Nine-fifteen at the earliest. Raffi says the C-train groper – that’s this perv feeling women up in the stations, probably hasn’t made the Vancouver news, but anyway – struck again, and this time someone saw his face, so that has priority. He’ll call Raffi when he’s done, come over then.” She repositioned Dave’s arm around her.

I stood up. “Nine fifteen? My flight’s at eleven. Last flight of the day. I’m going to miss my flight home!”

Harsha nodded. “Probably want to reschedule that.”

I glared at her. “Forget this. I told you I needed to get home tonight and you reneged. Give me my keys.”

She nodded toward the kitchen table, where the keys lay next to a teacup and saucer. When I turned back to look at her, she was staring at me. “You leave now,” she said evenly, “I call Identity Theft and ask if there’s been an update on my case. Still no activity on my credit cards, but just the other day I got a suspicious letter from someone – Kathleen something – claiming to have been in an accident with me. Gave me a phone number and everything. Maybe someone’s filed a police report. Who knows?” She was smiling.

The room was contracting around me. I could feel my heart jolt my ribcage, my breath quicken. “You filed it,” I said. My voice was shaking, and I willed myself to steady it. “We’re in this together.”

“Filed it when?” she asked. She stretched, walked into the kitchen, straightened up some papers on the counter. “I was here all evening. Dave? Wasn’t I here all evening?”

Alllll evening,” Dave confirmed. He hadn’t taken his eye off the screen. One of the Calgary players maneuvered the puck in front of the net and tried to slip it in, but the goalie fell on top of it and a whistle sounded. Dave slapped the armrests of his chair, swore.

“Must have been my identity thief,” said Harsha.

“Musta been,” echoed Dave, eyes fixed on the slow motion replay of the near goal.

“You, on the other hand,” continued Harsha, “You were there at the police station. Or, at the very least, a block away, paying for a meter with, I assume, your own credit card.” She paused, smiled. The picture she was painting had taken shape in my mind, but she continued anyway.

“Colluding with someone to file a police report. Someone other than me,” she repeated unnecessarily. “But someone who had my ID. So probably a criminal. But if the police were to question you, you’d be unable – well, unwilling anyway – to give them any useful information. If I were them I’d be pret-ty suspicious.” She opened her mouth as though to say more, but closed it immediately. There was no need.

“There were cameras,” I said. My throat was dry, and the words came out scratchy, thin. “There were cameras in the police station.”

Harsha shrugged. “Here and there, yeah. Someone who knew what they were doing could probably avoid giving a clear view of their face, though.”

I sat down, defeated.

“You can stay here tonight,” she offered.

On the television, a cheer rose up in the stadium. Dave leapt up from his seat. “Gooooal!” he shouted.

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