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