MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 9

Resigned to another missed flight home from Calgary, I’d elected to forgo a decent night’s sleep and catch the earliest flight back to Vancouver. On the highway to the airport, though, five short hours after I’d settled into Harsha and Dave’s lumpy sofa, I was questioning my decision. Sleep had been not only brief, but broken: on multiple occasions, I’d wrenched myself from another dream involving, in some permutation, Roger, various police officers, and the two Harsha Gills, meting out punishment for some nonspecific series of crimes involving identity theft, leaving the scene of an accident, and falsifying a police report. As dawn broke and I lay suspended in a state of semi-sleep, my father insinuated himself into my subconsciousness, first standing frozen beside a wrecked car, and later, ten years younger in my childhood bedroom, shaking his head telling me, “I worry about you, Kathleen.” At this one I finally woke, sweating, heart thudding, fully alert if not rested, as I realized in horror that today was Friday. Lord knew how I was going to face a day at the office, to say nothing of an evening hosting my father.

Somehow I managed to arrive at the airport without a second accident. I even scored a twenty-minute catnap on the plane, which fortified me enough to make my way to the SkyTrain, where I was pleasantly surprised to find the seats even better suited for slumber. I woke up two stops past my office’s, and one past my apartment’s. I checked my watch: eight fifty-five. But I’d boarded just after eight, and... but then the announcements changed, and I saw that the train was heading back toward the airport. No time to head home and change into my suit if I was to be on time for work. Disoriented, I felt around for my belongings, and was almost surprised to find my laptop still there. I released a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding, and scrambled to stand up as the train pulled into the station, nearly colliding with a transit cop I hadn’t noticed. “Rough night?” he asked. His head was tilted, and he was smiling almost imperceptibly, just enough to convey concern.

A strangled laugh escaped from my throat. “You have no idea.”

“We’re supposed to make people get off at the end of the line,” he said, “But I didn’t want to wake you.”

“Thanks.”

“You gonna be okay there?”

I slung the laptop bag over my shoulder, struggling to recover some sense of dignity. “Yeah, I’m fine.” The doors opened, and I forced myself to meet the cop’s eye. “And thank you,” I said, grateful for the small kindness.

The officer nodded as the doors separated us.

At my desk, I assumed a posture and expression that I hoped would pass as “deep in thought” to the casual observer. Not that Roger had ever granted deep in thought – at least as manifested by me – much respect; accordingly, I suffered a few minutes of his chatter, part of my training in being friendly rather than productive. I eventually begged off, telling him I had a lot of catching up to do, having missed an entire day in the office. This he accepted - particularly, he informed me pointedly, as I’d arrived eight minutes late that morning.

I staggered through a debriefing session with Sanjay, grateful that I’d documented the previous day’s database training session. He seemed satisfied with my report, but made a rare comment on my demeanour: “You seem tired, Kathleen. Travel takes a lot out of you, doesn’t it?”

I nodded dumbly. Under similar circumstances in the past, I’d been humbled by the charity Sanjay extended toward me with all my idiosyncrasies. But now, his generosity left me feeling like more of a fraud than all of the events of the past twenty-four hours put together. I felt like crying, itself so such a surprise as to only deepen the feeling. “I could use a relaxing weekend,” I conceded, and stood to leave.

“Kathleen,” he said, looking into my eyes, and I fell back into my seat. “I know you’re worried about the layoffs we’re facing. But you do good work and you’re an important part of the team. I’m doing what I can to make sure the people in charge of making decisions get that, and I’ll do that even if you stay in town before the Western Seed Co-op opens their Vancouver office.”

I nodded again. Too much to process there. “Thanks,” I managed.

My apartment, predictably enough, was in disarray when I got home. The space itself was probably in no worse a state than it was every other Friday, but the same couldn’t be said for me, and the usual cooking-and-cleaning activity seemed almost insurmountable.

I had an hour and fifteen minutes to create an illusion of control before my father arrived. I brewed a cup of coffee, my fourth of the day, and made the easy decision to make chilli for dinner: a few cans of assorted beans and tomatoes, toss in some spices, and leave the entire concoction to simmer for an hour while I inflicted a veneer of cleanliness upon my living space. Chilli with some rice, drinks, and a tub of ice cream I had in the freezer – a proper meal and dessert. Not my best work, but it’d do.

Forty-five minutes later, the countertops clear and scrubbed, and the chilli smelling perfectly acceptable – thank God, at least I wasn’t so far gone as to to screw up chilli – I gathered up the recycling to remove the empty beer cans from my unit, and opened the fridge to transfer the full ones to the sock drawer. This task turned out to be easier than usual: no full beer cans. I’d realized that even with the day out of town, I’d drunk more that week, but hadn’t realized it had been that much. I was too tired to reflect on that, but alert enough to know that I should.

My father arrived at exactly six-thirty, and we ate in near-silence for the next few minutes. To my relief, the chilli passed muster, and between bites my father told me he was busy editing his paper – “always my least favourite part of the process” – but that he was happy with the results, and that it was satisfying to be producing good work at this stage of his career, even if he wasn’t as quick as he used to be. I nodded. I knew there must be pressure on him to retire, but I knew just as well not to pursue the subject. “And you had a tiring week,” my father said.

I forced myself to smile. “That obvious?” I joked. But I knew it was. My father didn’t return my smile, just held my eye as he took another bite of chilli, waiting me out. I took a full thirty seconds to turn a lump of chilli and rice into liquid before swallowing it, and then wiped my face and downed a half glass of water. My father hadn’t broken his gaze, and I finally answered. “I was in Calgary working with the seed co-op,” I said. “Early flight.”

He nodded. “You usually don’t travel,” he said, “Then twice in two weeks.”

“Three weeks,” I corrected pointlessly. “This was a bit of a unique situation.”

“Day trip?”

“No, I stayed overnight.”

“You didn’t mention you’d be out of town.”

“It was kind of a last minute thing.”

“I see.” Still staring at me. I looked down and finished my chilli, helped myself to seconds. He dropped the subject, and the relief I felt at having been granted this small mercy was quickly supplanted by guilt over not having earned it. We finished the meal in silence.

My first hand was a gift - six partial sets, with each card I drew an easy improvement over what I held. I won the first game. The second was a disaster, my father beating me before I’d assembled a single set. He wrote down the score dispassionately, and dealt the third hand, which didn’t go much better. My father might as well have been discarding face down into the pile for all I remembered about what cards had gone by. After the fourth hand, recording another victory for himself, he pointed to his own cards. “The four of hearts, five of hearts, and three of clubs were from you,” he said. “You gave me the choice between the heart run and a set of threes.” His brow was creased. Not gloating. Not critical.

“Pretty stupid,” I agreed, my attempt at levity interrupted by a yawn. “The Calgary trip did a number on me.” I gathered up the cards to deal another hand, but my father placed a hand on mine, and gently took the deck from me. “Why don’t I clean up, and then I’ll go home and you can rest.”

I nodded dumbly. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Thanks.”

He stood, and carried a dish to the sink. His hands were shaking, and for the first time I noticed how slowly he moved. When had he become so old? I found myself on the verge of tears again, the fact of which upset me anew, and I joined him in the kitchen. I couldn’t watch this, not tonight. “I’ll clean those tomorrow,” I said. “I’m sorry about tonight. I’ll call you tomorrow morning, okay? I just need to rest.”

He set the dish down, grateful. “You call me. And you tell me about the rest of your week.”

I was too tired to object. Twelve hours should be more than enough to come up with a decent lie.

I saw him out, and at once became fully conscious of the exhaustion that I’d felt for the past twenty-four hours. My legs were stiff, and it took serious effort to open my eyelids more than halfway. I staggered into the bedroom, which I was dismayed to find just as I had left it: a bed covered with clothes, books, and unopened mail. To hell with it, I thought. I shook the blanket out from underneath the rubble, grabbed a pillow, and for the second time in as many days, spent a night on a sofa. This time, though, I was out within seconds, and slept soundly through the night.

I awoke twelve hours later, and settled onto the sofa with my laptop. I had three emails, all from Harsha. The first, dated early Friday morning, was a request to proofread a draft of her latest column, which was a first-person account of the car accident, “just to make sure I have the details right”. The second email, from Friday afternoon, contained the same request, this time more urgent, informing me that she had to file the column by five that evening, “and then it runs, whether you’ve checked it or not”; at the bottom this email was a note that the C-Train groper had been already been apprehended, “when his mother of all people recognized the sketch and called in a tip – so someone’s bound to recognize your driver from the picture you did with Ray.” The third email was a link to the column.

I clicked on the link to the column first. “Readers would be forgiven,” it began, “for thinking my life is one giant party, interrupted by the occasional humiliation at the hands (both literally and figuratively!) of Calgary’s young single men; and for the most part, it is”; and from there Harsha went on to apologize for not delivering such an episode in this week’s instalment: “Alas, on occasion the more mundane demands my time and attention – and I hope my readers will offer some of both of theirs regarding an unlikely series of events that found me in a police station.”

And so on in this vein for another four or five hundred words, as the narrative flitted seamlessly between truth and fiction. Among the truths: that someone who presented herself as Harsha Gill had been driving west along Highway 1; that the driver had collided with a young woman from Vancouver; and that Harsha was looking for a driver at the scene who drove a beige Honda Civic and who had two children, one around five or six years old, the other two or three, the latter in a car seat. Tying these threads together without implicating either of us in anything unsavoury, Harsha cast her impersonator in the role of witness: the real Harsha had lent the fake one her pen, “which my late father gave me when I graduated from university,” and in the chaos didn’t get it back. “When I tried to phone her, I got an error message – I must have copied the number down incorrectly; and I couldn’t find a listing for her...”

At this point in my reading, I was wondering how Harsha would deal the issue of the impersonator’s identity. She handled it with a skill that would be lost on all of her other readers, by again invoking the flighty persona she’d honed over the past few years: “She did give me her name, but stupidly, I didn’t even write it down, but I know I’d recognize it if I heard it.” Fortunately, she “never forgot a face”, hence the sketch that appeared below. She’d be grateful if anyone could help her find this person, who had taken her pen, which was both expensive and which had great sentimental value to her. Such sentimental value, in fact, that she was offering a $300 reward for any information leading to its safe return.

This last part jolted me back to reality. I switched back to Gmail, and fired off a quick message.

I’m not paying anyone three hundred dollars.

She responded at once:

Chill. There’s no pen, remember?

I stared at that for a few seconds, then shook my head and smiled. I’d almost forgotten that. The column was a work of art, confidence and self-deprecation in perfect equilibrium, leading me to like its author in spite of everything I knew about her. And her hundreds of readers, mostly young women whose online comments occasionally got incorporated into subsequent columns, knew less about her than I did.

I scrolled to the bottom of the page, and the face of the fake Harsha Gill immediately filled my screen. I gasped: I’d seen the sketch two nights earlier, but now, fully rested, removed from the process of helping bring it into being, I was struck anew by both the likeness of the image and the skill of its creator. Over the years, I’d seen police sketches on most-wanted posters and the like, and remembered thinking that they looked nothing so much as generic; I could have shared a bus bench - or an office - with the pictured suspects and never known. Not so with this picture. This picture was a flawless rendering of the woman whose car I hit in Calgary.

Thinking back to that crazy evening with the real Harsha Gill, I remembered the hour I spent with Ray, the sketch artist, as the only enjoyable part of the trip. I wished I’d been able to experience it under better circumstances, and I’d told him as much, or close, explaining that I’d come in on an early flight that morning, and was physically and mentally exhausted. “That’s fine,” he’d said. “Better than fine, in fact. I get better sketches from subjects who aren’t at their most lucid. Can you picture the person we’re going to be drawing tonight?”

“Clearly,” I said.

“Good. It’s okay if you’re not thinking straight. I don’t want you thinking about what this person looks like. I want you remembering. Once you start thinking, your focus shifts from the formation of the memory to images that are connected in some context, but that are often just a distraction. Do you see what I’m saying?”

“Maybe.”

He smiled, and pulled out a chair for me, and settled in the seat opposite. He had a large sketchpad, folded to a page in the middle, and he braced it with his left arm at an angle. The hockey game had ended, and Harsha and Dave were watching us from the living room. I ignored them.

“Are you ready?”

“I guess. I’ve never done this before.”

“Few people have.” He smiled again. I decided I liked him. “All right. Close your eyes.”

I did, and felt myself drifting off.

“Now, I want you to picture this – it’s a woman?”

“Yes. Her left eye –”

“We’ll get to the details later,” he interrupted. “I like to start with shapes. Okay, imagine you’re standing in front of her. You’re looking directly at her, but you’re losing focus; you can’t see her features clearly, just the shape of her face. You got that?”

“Yes.”

“I want you to focus on the shape of her face. What does it look like? – no, keep your eyes closed. Keep the image in your head.”

I waited for another prompt, but he wouldn’t give one. “Kind of small. Roundish. Um, low forehead.” I heard the pencil scratching across the page. “I don’t know. Sorry, I’m not good at describing people.” I was glad my eyes were still closed; I couldn’t look Harsha in the eye right now.

“That’s okay,” Ray said. “Now keep that image. Keep it…now open your eyes.”

I did. Ray turned the sketchpad toward me: an oval centred on the page, faint lines where the features would sit.

“This is the face of the woman you’re describing. What’s wrong with its shape?”

I pointed. “Smaller chin,” I said at once. “Shorter at the forehead.”

“Good, you’re doing great. Close your eyes again.”

Again I did, and again I heard the soft lead pencil scratching, mostly short strokes with a few long ones. Next, Ray guided me through the placement of her hairline, eyes, eyebrows, nose, and mouth. He worked quietly, his expertise presenting as a sort of relaxed intensity. I’d never witnessed a more impressive performance. Twenty minutes earlier I had been unable to articulate the set of the woman’s eyes, the height of her cheekbones, the thickness of her lips. Now, my mental image of her – minus the blemish – lay rendered in charcoal. I stared, speechless.

“Now,” he continued. “Let’s talk about distinguishing features. Scars, birthmarks, that kind of thing. I leave those to the end because people often have trouble seeing past them. You mentioned an eye?”

I nodded, and described the woman’s flecked amber irises, along with the teardrop-shaped pupil that had extended to the edge of the left one. Ray started to nod partway through my description, but waited until I finished before he spoke.

“Coloboma of the iris.” He brought the sketchpad to his face, and made a few quick strokes before turning it around again. “Like this?”

“A bit wider at the side,” I said.

He adjusted the picture, and presented it to me once more.

“Yeah, that’s it. That’s her.”

He set the sketchpad on the table. “There was a high-profile case, eight, ten years ago,” he said. “A little girl with the same eye defect went missing. That’s how I know about it. It’s very rare – one in ten thousand people or so – and people notice it. If anyone knows your woman, they’ll recognize her from the description, with or without my sketch.”

A few feet away, Harsha was watching us.

Ray stood up, and withdrew an invoice from his briefcase. “The sketch is yours. Who’s covering this?” he asked.

“She is,” Harsha called from the living room.

I stared at her. “You’re the one who wants to find her.”

Harsha approached the table, and leaned in so closely that I could feel her breath on my face. “I haven’t decided what my next column will be about,” she said calmly, almost inaudibly. “It’s been a dull week. Just stayed in all evening watching hockey. How about you? I hear you had a much more interesting evening.”

I nodded in resignation, and pulled a credit card from my wallet. Ray filled out the invoice, handed it to me to sign, and tore off a copy. Harsha tried to usher Ray out the door, but I kept him for a minute or two chatting about his work (he was a freelancer, getting most of his work from the police but also doing portraits at farmers’ markets and parties) and his technique (he’d tried software, but preferred the control he got with pencil and paper) – partly out of interest, but mostly out of petulance.

Now, I looked back at the blog, and started scrolling through the comments. Only a few dozen so far; but the column had only been out a few hours. The first few comments, timestamped minutes after the post , were vacuous accolades from regular readers: “Glad to hear your okay! Hope you get your pen back!” “That sucks!!! Sorry I can’t help but I’ll ask around.”, and the slightly more sophisticated, “Shitty way to spend an afternoon, is there anything you CAN’T turn into a great story? Back to the jungle next week?” Below these were some comments that actually referenced the column itself: one was from someone who might have seen the driver at a grocery store in the northeast, but didn’t get a close look; the comment below was an affirmation – “yeah, I think I saw her around there too, a little while back”; another from someone who said she “looked familiar, but [couldn’t] place her”, but that she’d think about it and get back to Harsha. I rolled my eyes. Regardless of whether these people had seen the fake Harsha Gill, or were merely trying to cast themselves in supporting roles in what had the potential to be an exciting story by a popular columnist, their contributions were useless. At the end of this sad array of comments was one from a teacher: “You say the older son looked like he was around five years old. If so, he might be in kindergarten. Maybe readers who have friends who teach primary school or work at daycares can ask around?”

Definitely the best suggestion there, but still a long shot. The fake Harsha Gill certainly wasn’t going to come forward to the woman whose identity she had stolen. It all came down to whether the real Harsha’s influence was as great as she seemed to think it was. And now there was really no need for me to read on: Harsha and I had both kept our ends of a bargain, and we both had reason not to rat the other out. Not exactly a foundation for a rich lasting relationship, but I could live with that. And yet I kept the page open, refreshing every minute or two as the comments accumulated.

When I finally looked up from the screen, my cell phone was flashing. I had forgotten to turn the ringer on, as I often did; my father had left an anxious message. “Kathleen. Call me as soon as you get this.”

My heart sank. I dialed my father, who answered on the first ring and greeted me without preliminaries: “You said you’d call this morning.”

I glanced at the clock. 12:07. Shit. “I’m sorry. I slept in. Listen, I’m sorry about last night –”

“You said you’d call.” He was quieter now, but I could hear him breathing heavily.

“I’m sorry. I’m calling now. How are you doing?” I tried to inject some brightness into my voice, but I could feel my chest constrict. My father asked so little of me; what he did ask, he asked out of need. I had a full night’s sleep behind me, and yet still I couldn’t manage to do the one simple thing that would set my father’s mind at ease.

“Kathleen, you say you’re going to call me in the morning, you call me in the morning. You know I worry about you.”

“I know, Dad.” Silence filled the line for the next minute. There was nothing else to say.

“Call me tomorrow morning,” he said.

“I will.”

“Before noon.”

“I will, Dad.”

He hung up, and before I put down my phone, I set an alarm for ten the next morning.

I spent another minute or two staring at the computer screen in front of me, at the Calgary teacher’s reminder that there were two children somehow involved in this mess. I bookmarked the post, and shut my computer.

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