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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.