Chapter 16: Cherry Pie & French Fries

If my life were a dark basement, then Chloe Vargas is like a fluorescent light. Okay never mind. Bad analogy. But the thing is, this dismal, depressing town was beginning to make me feel trapped, stifled. Then Chloe showed up, the fresh air I needed in my lungs, a wide swath of unexplored land. She has this way of walking, swaying her hips and arms like she’s a model on the runway instead of an ordinary twenty-eight-year-old barista.

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Scratch that. Chloe is anything but ordinary. She reads Ayn Rand and Kafka. She listens to 1920s jazz while washing dishes by hand. By hand! She doesn’t even own a dishwasher, or television, or computer. She’s a vegetarian, but the cherry-pie and French fry sort of vegetarian, not the soy and salad kind.

She’s amazing.

Two weeks after we meet, Chloe becomes my partner in crime-solving. Well, okay, she becomes more than just that. Way more.

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But besides all that, she becomes a huge help in solving the Philippa case. I mean, I still haven’t found Philippa or anything, but with Chloe’s great ideas, I think I may be on the verge at last.

“The problem is,” she tells me, “you’ve played it too safe so far. You’ve checked all the normal places. All the safe places. But let’s face it – things may not have turned out too well for this poor kid.”

She’s right, of course. So I roll up my sleeves and begin to scour the town like never before. I check the crumbling, abandoned warehouses.

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I explore rotting shacks, storm cellars, caves. I even poke around the tombs at the cemetery, all while shuddering at the idea that someone might entomb a young child at such a place.

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There is no sign of Philippa. But Chloe doesn’t let me grow discouraged. “Is there any clue at all? Anything that bears checking out twice?” she asks. “Think, Mason, think!”

I stroke my chin, very detective-like. “I still think there may have been something fishy about Mr. Scotty at the toy store,” I say slowly.

Her eyes dance. “Then let’s go have another look!”

I glance at my cell phone. “It’s almost midnight. We’ll have to wait until the shop opens tomorrow.”

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She raises her eyebrows so high, they practically disappear into her hairline. “Are you a detective, or aren’t you?” she says. With a cat-like grin, she whirls around and begins sashaying toward the toy store. I follow her lead, filled with awe at her boldness and disbelief that I was about to break into a store.

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Using the lights from our phones, we examined every inch of the shop, but found nothing unusual, nothing out of place. “I guess that’s it then.” I turn to leave, filled with both disappointment and relief. I was hoping the toy store guy was innocent, even though I want to find the missing girl.

“Hey wait! Check it out.” Chloe has discovered a door, which is partially hidden behind a shelf of toys. She tries the knob, and the door swings open. We step inside a small bedroom, furnished with dark, heavy furniture. But the strangest thing is that perched upon the small table beside the bed is a doll. “Now what would an old man like Scotty be doing with a doll in his room?” Chloe clicks her tongue in disapproval. “Busted.”

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It sure looks like we may have a real, genuine suspect. This room would be a perfect place to hide away a child. But if Philippa had been held captive here, where is she now?

“Maybe he—” Chloe starts to say.

I hold up a hand. “Don’t say it. We can’t lose hope. Not yet.”

It is time to confront the toy man.

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Chapter 15: Scotty’s Toys and Novelties

I’ve been in Raven Creek for five days now, and it’s starting to get to me. The constant blanket of fog has crept into my bones and settled there, filling me with a heavy sense of dread. Each morning, I drag myself out of bed and take a long, hot shower, trying to shake off the chill.

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Find Philippa, becomes my daily mantra. It wakes me from my stupor, helps me to focus on the reason why I came here. Find Philippa, before it’s too late.

With no leads, and a dead-end police report, I have no option but to begin investigating random citizens. This is easier said than done. Half the citizens of Raven Creek are as cold and reclusive as my roommate, Lloyd. And the other half, while cooperative, are eccentric and boisterous.

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“Sure, I saw a little girl who looked like that,” says a man whose braided hair is dyed the same garish shade of orange as his shirt. “Back in… oh, what year was that? I can’t remember, but I had to be around fourteen years old…”

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“Never mind,” I tell him, then move on to speak to a few people who seem to have the same sunlight deficiency as Lloyd. I sit at a table with a quiet pair of guys for at least twenty minutes before one of them finally looks up from his book to suggest, “Why don’t you try searching some place where little kids tend to hang out?”

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I hate that I didn’t think of that first.

Over the next couple of days, I take the guy’s advice. I question every staff member at Philippa’s school, including the janitor and cafeteria staff. I scope out the playground, the ice cream parlor, the library. No one is able to recall seeing Philippa. It’s as though the whole town has amnesia. And then, while wandering through the shopping district, I stumble across Scotty’s Toys and Novelties. A toy store – of course! What more likely place for a young child to have spent her time?

The décor of the toy store is as dark and old-fashioned as many other shops in town. However, the heavy furnishings and wallpaper are offset by brightly-hued throw rugs and wall-hangings, and shelves and shelves of colorful toys and games.

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As I scan the rows of miniature cars and fashion dolls, my eyes fall across a shelf full of stuffed animals. Unicorns, to be exact. Like Goldie, I think, recalling the words of Philippa’s best friend.

“Excuse me,” I say, waving over the man behind the counter.

“Yes?” Everything about the man screams purple, from his purple bowler hat and suit to his purple-tinted hair and moustache. Yet my senses are no longer shocked by such an appearance, thanks to my exposure to the rest of the town’s citizens. “How can I help you?”

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“Do you know if this store has ever sold a golden unicorn that looks like these?” I point at the stuffed toys.

“Of course,” says the man. “Let’s see…I have sold exactly one golden unicorn since I opened this shop twelve years ago.”

“You opened this shop?” I raise my eyebrows. “Then you must be—”

“Why yes, indeed. My name is Poindexter Scott, owner and proprietor of Scotty’s Toys and Novelties.” He sweeps into a full bow, and his hat falls to the floor.

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I ask Mr. Scott a few questions, but he insists that he hasn’t seen a child who looks like Philippa around his shop. “At least, not lately,” he adds. “I am sure that I have seen this child before. She came into my shop two years ago. Just a tiny little thing carrying a small sack full of coins, which she’d collected all by herself. She was the child who bought my only golden unicorn.”

That was Philippa all right, I am sure of it. I thank Mr. Scott for his time and ask him to contact me at once if he thinks of any additional information. Then I return to my search, no closer to finding Philippa than I had been when I began. Who would have a motive to kidnap a young orphan girl? Some deranged local or passing traveler? A desperate couple with no children of their own? I am running out of ideas, and fearful that Philippa, wherever she is, is running out of time.

And then, I meet Chloe Vargas. And that’s when everything changes.

 

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Chapter 14:The Detective of Raven Creek

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I arrive in Raven Creek shortly after five in the morning, and it has begun to pour rain. The house is enormous – much larger than in the online description, with gray stone walls and Gothic era windows. It would look bizarre in a more metropolitan area, like Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. But here in this dreary, rain-drenched town, it looks perfectly normal.

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As I approach the gate leading to the house, the front door opens, and a man steps onto the porch. “Hello! Are you…uh…” I consult the name in my cell phone. “Lloyd Miller?”

“I am he.” The man displays no warmth in his greeting. “I assume you must be my new renter?”

“Yeah, I’m Mason Hughes. Detective Hughes,” I correct myself. I’m standing directly in front of Lloyd now, whose clothes are as formal as his manner of speech, and whose skin is a ghastly shade of white, almost greenish. I wonder whether he’s anemic or if he could just use a few hours of sun.

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Lloyd motions for me to step inside. “Allow me to show you to your room,” he says. “Your luggage arrived yesterday, by the way.” As I follow him through the house, which is dimly lit and smells like dust, he goes over a list of tenant rules. The usual stuff, like no loud music, no pets, blah blah blah. I know the whole spiel, having lived in twenty different rental rooms in the past five years. The cities change, the faces change, but the rules don’t change much.

I must admit, though, that this is the most unusual house I’ve ever stayed in. The dark heavy furnishings and ornate woodwork are so archaic, that I am momentarily shocked when I set up my modern computer system and it works.

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My latest job is a serious one. Many people contact me to seek out old acquaintances, or to spy on their ex-partners to satisfy some jealous rage. But this time, my client contacted me to search for a missing person. A child, to be exact.

After a few hours of shut-eye, I set out to visit my client. Sue Browning is a plump, middle-aged woman and the head of a group foster care home. Her face is set into a permanent scowl, etched with deep lines. But when she addresses the children in her care, her voice is gentle and kind.

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“Philippa is a nine-year-old girl, with long black hair and brown eyes,” says Ms. Browning. “She was last seen leaving her school three weeks ago. She never made it onto the school bus.”

“Have the police found any clues to her possible whereabouts?” I ask.

Ms. Browning sneers. “The police,” she says, spitting out the word as though it tastes bad, “barely did anything more than take her name and photo and promise to do the best they can do. As far as I’ve seen, all they did was scout around town for a few days and scour the woods. They think she could have fallen into the lake, but they refuse to drain it, because it’s too costly.” Her eyes well with tears, and she reaches for a tissue. “Excuse me,” she says, dabbing at her eyes. “It’s just that these children are like my own family. And I just miss Philippa so much.”

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After I gather as much information as I can from Ms. Browning, I interview the other children. One of the kids, a skinny young girl named Eloise, tells me that Philippa is her best friend. “Me and her and Goldie always play together,” she says. “But she got stolen. And Goldie, too.”

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I frown. “Goldie was stolen, too? Is that another friend of yours?”

“No, silly,” Eloise shakes her head, smiling. “Goldie is a golden unicorn.”

“I see.” So Goldie is an imaginary creature. Too bad. I was hoping to have more solid leads.

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I leave the foster home, heading for the town center. My plan is to investigate all the places Philippa usually goes – her school, the park, everywhere. And if that doesn’t help, I will interview every single one of the 3,000 residents of Raven Creek. If that little girl is hidden somewhere in the vicinity, I am going to find her.

Chapter 13: Football Fails and Future-Thinking

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She is dressed in Donna’s clothes, but the girl standing there is not Donna. Another name drifts into my mind – a name that brings with it a rush of memories. “Melissa?” As soon as I’ve uttered the name, I clamp my teeth together. Donna, she’s Donna, I tell myself. People can’t transform into other people.

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But they can, says that other voice. This time, the voice is familiar. It is Al’s voice. No, my voice, I correct myself as once again, Raymond’s memories are muted, and my own thoughts take over. They are foggy, though. I wonder how much time I’ll get before I lose myself again. Maybe the longer I inhabit someone else’s body, the more I become suppressed inside them.

Donna-Melissa is nodding. “Yes, it’s me.” Her eyes sparkle in the light of the streetlamp. “Are you Al or Richard?”

“Al, of course.” I frown. How could she possibly get me mixed up with Richard? Even though I have never shown her a picture of Teenage Me, surely my appearance doesn’t even resemble Teenage Richard’s.

She laughs. “I’m kidding. So, how do you like this trip?” She waves a hand around in the air. “Isn’t it a hoot?”

I snort. “Easy for you to say. I mean, look at me!” I point down at my leather jacket and rolled-up jeans. “I look like Pony Boy, for crying out loud!”

“I think you look adorable,” she says. “And you play a mean guitar.”

“Yeah?” I grab her around the waist and pull her toward me. “That’s not the only trick I’ve got up my sleeve.” Before she can respond, I kiss her. Greaser-style.

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“Well,” she says as we pull apart. “I hope you don’t forget how to kiss like that when we finally get back home again.”

Oh yeah. Home. “Any idea of who Richard could be?” I mean, I would happily jump back into the phone booth and leave Richard stranded. But I have the feeling it doesn’t work without the three of us together.

She grins. “What if he’s Principal O’Reilly?”

“Oh, I know!” I say, laughing. “Maybe he’s my mom!”

“Or your girlfriend.”

“Ugh!” I’m so repulsed by the thought, I forget to remind her that Helen is not my girlfriend.

The mystery doesn’t remain unsolved for long. Melissa invites me over her house to “tutor” her the next day. We’re actually planning to sneak off to her room and make out for awhile, and maybe more (I mean hey, technically, we’re both consenting adults). But 1957 rears its ugly head.

“Donna, you know that boys are not allowed in your room,” her mother tells her in a loud whisper after she intercepts us in the hall. Then she turns to me, smiling. “Raymond, dear. I’m sure that Dean is available if you boys would like to go outside and toss around the football.”

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“Want to?” asks Dean, jumping up from the sofa with the enthusiasm of a dog who’s been offered a game of fetch with a tennis ball.

“Football?” I try to paste a polite smile on my face. I don’t play football as 1957 Raymond or present day me. “Sure. That’d be…swell.”

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With a horrified look toward Donna, I follow Dean out to the lawn, where there’s already a football waiting for us in the grass. I pick it up with a grimace, then cross the lawn. Dean is waiting for the throw, hands poised to catch it. I try to remember how to hold the ball, then rear back one arm and throw it.

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The ball does not sail through the air in a perfect spiral. Instead, it flops across the yard in a lazy arc, landing easily in Dean’s hands.

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“Wow,” he says, laughing, “you really stink at this.” All of a sudden, he shifts. Now Teenage Richard is standing there in Dean’s letterman jacket, still laughing at me. I guess some things never change.

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“Richard!” Melissa runs over and throws her arms around his neck. For a sickening moment, I think she’s going to kiss him. But maybe she remembers that in this reality, he’s her brother, because she steps away.

Richard looks stunned. “Melissa?” He looks over at me. “Alan?”

I let out an exasperated huff. “My name is Al,” I say. “Not Alan.”

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The Wonder Triplets were together again. So, I’ll just fast-forward a couple of days, to when we manage to find our magic phone booth. At least, we assume it’s our magic phone booth, since it’s parked in the middle of a grassy field and all.

“Maybe we need to try something different to control this thing,” I suggest. “Like think futuristic thoughts. Visualize Apple Heights or something.”

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The others agree. “Just try not to get us transported back to the Jurassic era,” says Richard, smirking. “I’m not in the mood to get eaten by a dinosaur.”

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“I’ll try my best,” I say, then climb into the phone booth. As it starts its whirling, dizzying spin cycle, I try to think of present-day thoughts. My grandkids. Melissa’s art. The mediocre food at Sleepy Meadows Retirement Home. Then everything goes still.