Chapter 19: The Secret Room

It almost ends happily-ever-after.

I step through the doorway, which five seconds ago was a bookshelf, and into a bedroom. A child’s bedroom, in fact, with toys and a small bed, next to which sits a plump, golden stuffed unicorn.

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A young girl is seated on the floor, before a Victorian dollhouse.

“Hello Philippa,” I say. The excitement within me is so strong, I want to leap in the air and kick my heels together. But I don’t want to frighten her (or fall flat on my face), so I keep my voice low and steady. “I’m Detective Mason. I’ve come to take you home.”

Philippa blinks up at me with wide brown eyes. “But this is my home. I got…adopted.”

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Oh great. Turns out that Chloe fed the kid some cock-and-bull story that Chloe was her new adoptive mother. I crouch down and try to explain to her in a gentle, kid-friendly way that Chloe wasn’t telling the truth. “Ms. Browning and your friends are really worried about you,” I say. “And Eloise can’t wait to play with you and Goldie again.”

Philippa glances at her unicorn. “Do you think Eloise will mind that I changed Goldie’s name?” She sounds concerned. “Now I call him Beaners.”

I keep my voice serious. “I don’t think Eloise will mind one bit. Ready to get out of here?”

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Philippa breaks into a huge smile. “You mean I get to finally go outside the house. Yay!” She bounces on her toes. I take her hand, and I’m about to suggest that we run downstairs to get away from her kidnapper as quickly as possible. But just then, something bizarre happens.

One second, I’m looking at a thin girl with olive skin and long black hair. Then bam! A round, pink-cheeked girl with short brown hair is looking back at me. “What the— ?” I stumble back, holding up my hands as though to protect myself. “What…where did Philippa just go?”

“Silly,” said the girl-who-was-not-Philippa. “I am Philippa.” Then she stops, mouth falling open as she stares at me. “Oh my god…Al? Al Becerra?”

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It’s like when you’re stuck in a dream where everything seems real, then you jerk awake and realize that you were asleep the whole time.

I am not Mason Hughes.

“Oh my god,” I repeat. I rub my eyes. “Oh my god! Melissa?” I squint down at her. It can’t be! But now, even though she’s many decades younger, I recognize the sparkling blue eyes, the stubborn, pointy chin. “What on earth happened to your hair?”

She rolls her eyes. “Look, my mom used to cut my hair with the kitchen shears, okay? I didn’t get to go to a real hair salon until I was in high school.”

The voice of Chloe floats in from somewhere downstairs. “Mason?”

I drop my voice. “We’ve got to go, kid. I need to deliver you to the orphanage.”

Melissa snaps back into the body of Philippa. “Can’t I just go home with you, so we can start searching for the phone booth?”

I shake my head. I want to explain that I haven’t yet found Richard, so the booth won’t appear, and that my housemate is a vampire who might eat her up. But there isn’t enough time. Chloe’s footsteps are growing louder, coming our way.

“I’ll collect you as soon as I can,” I promise. She clutches Beaners under her arm, then we step into the hallway. Chloe is standing there, fuming. “Run for it!” I tell Melissa-who-is-Philippa, and she bolts past Chloe and down the stairs.

“Come back here!” Chloe races after her, and I follow, fumbling for my phone at the same time. I dial emergency, then jump in front of Chloe, blocking her from getting near Philippa, who is cowering near the front door, unable to twist the old-fashioned locks to escape.

“You will never again steal another child,” I tell her, pouring my anger and disgust into each word. “You…you mime!”

The word describes her perfectly.

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I guard the criminal until the police arrive, then Philippa and I head out into the night.

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“I won’t forget,” I say in a quiet voice as I leave her in Ms. Browning’s care at the group home. “As soon as I’ve found Richard, I’ll come for you.”

She nods. She has the face and body of a child, but her eyes are filled with the wisdom and understanding of someone who has lived many years. “And then,” she says, “we’ll return home.”

Man, I hope she’s right.

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Chapter 18: My Girlfriend is a Freaking Mime

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I’m missing something. Some vital clue that would help me to locate the missing girl. But what? I sit, and I think. I pace, and I think. I go for a jog around town to help me clear my head (and that’s saying something, because I never jog). But nothing comes to me – no alarm, no light bulb, no earth-shattering revelation. I had scoured every inch of Raven Creek, and investigated everyone from janitors to baristas. There’s nothing left. It’s time, I know, to face the grim reality.

Little Philippa had either been kidnapped by some stranger passing through town, or she’s dead.

I’m not ready to face up to either possibility, especially the idea that her remains could be buried in some sicko’s basement right now. I decide to head to Chloe’s house for comforting. Maybe after a night in her arms, I’ll be ready to call it quits on the search.

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“It’s after midnight,” she says, rubbing her eyes. She doesn’t look happy to see me. “I was about to head to bed.”

Still, she lets me in and listens patiently as I share my worries about Philippa. “Cases like this make me think about changing careers,” I say.

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“I’ve changed careers like, five times,” says Chloe. She starts listing all the jobs she has, and I’m barely paying attention, until all of a sudden, she says something I can’t believe.

“Say that again?” I rub my ear, hoping that I heard her wrong.

She grins. “I said that I used to be a mime. For around six years. Once in a while, people still hire me for birthday parties and stuff.”

I resist the urge to shove her away from me right then and there. A mime? My girlfriend is a freaking mime!

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Now I understand the feelings of uncertainty I’d been having lately whenever Chloe and I were together. Somehow, my instincts must have known that something about her was off. No one can be a mime and be a stable, rational human being. This honeymoon is definitely over.

“Hey Chloe.” I try to keep my voice bright. “Would you mind making me a cup of tea?”

“Now?” She sounds incredulous.

“It’s been a long day.”

“Well…I guess so.” I wait until she disappears into the kitchen. Then I put on my detective hat,  figuratively speaking, and begin to search the one place in Raven Creek I had neglected to search: Chloe’s house.

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I creep from room to room, scanning for anything I may have missed while head-over-heels for Chloe. Then I head upstairs, cringing when one of the steps groans under my weight. I pause, certain that Chloe has heard and will come running out of the kitchen to see what I’m up to. But she doesn’t.

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The upstairs bedrooms are dark and silent. I flip on the light switches and glance around, but see nothing out of the ordinary. I’m filled with disappointment. Not that I want my girlfriend to be a kidnapper or anything, but at least the idea gave me a glimmer of hope for finding Philippa alive.

I’m about to go back downstairs when I notice something odd. At the end of hallway, there’s a huge bookcase against one wall. My first thought is, Chloe can’t stand to read, one of the differences between me and her. My second thought is, who puts a massive bookcase in a narrow hallway? My detective spidey senses are tingling.

I walk over and examine the books, which are an eclectic mixture of how-to manuals and classic works of literature. Nothing too out of the ordinary there. But then, I hear a small sound from behind the books, and I swear it sounds like a sneeze. What the…?

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Now I’m convinced – this is not a mere bookshelf. I flip through the books, searching for a button to press, a handle, or something. Then I push gently on a row of books. There is a click, and a sound of a motor humming.

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A panel opens up in the bookcase, revealing a doorway to another room. Without hesitation, I step inside.

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Chapter 17: My Housemate Really Sucks

Things in Raven Creek are not at all what they appear to be.

For starters, I am about ninety-nine percent sure that my housemate, Lloyd, is a vampire. Which is impossible, because vampires don’t exist, right? But the other night, I accidentally wandered into Lloyd’s bedroom while fumbling around in the dark, searching for the bathroom. Lloyd was fast asleep. But get this – he was sleeping on a hard slab of stone, which looked an awful lot like a coffin.

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Now, maybe that wasn’t so unusual. Plenty of people have unusual fixations. Maybe Lloyd is just really fond of the macabre, or maybe the hard granite is good for his bad back. Who knows? But the very next day, I stepped inside the house just in time to see him hypnotize a visitor. I stood there blinking for a moment, unable to comprehend what I was seeing. But the visitor’s eyes went glassy, and his body went kind of slack. Next thing I knew, Lloyd was having a snack from the visitor’s jugular – vampire style. Then, as I stood there in horror, he managed to convince the visitor that nothing unusual had just happened.

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I backed away, still having gone unnoticed by Lloyd, and pretended to have just come through the front door.

After that incident, I have kept my distance from my roommate. I don’t want to be the only one in the room when he gets a sudden snack attack! On the other hand, maybe he already has snacked on my blood, but has made me forget all about it. The idea makes my insides curl.

I try to shove my roommate’s secret identity out of my mind, though, because I have other work to do. Now that Chloe and I have discovered the little bedroom hidden in Scotty’s Toys, I know that I must investigate Poindexter Scott again. He had seemed so innocent, and genuinely concerned for the missing child when I questioned him in his shop. But it would have been so simple for him to hide Philippa in the little bedroom, locked away from shoppers. Only one question remains – if he had been keeping Philippa in the hidden bedroom, then where is she now?

I wait until nightfall to approach the toy seller’s house; a small cottage that reminds me of the gingerbread house in the story of Hansel and Gretel. Just right for luring children, I think, shuddering.

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I creep around the grounds, looking for anything unusual, and rummage through his trash bins, looking for discarded Goldfish crackers, juice boxes, anything that might indicate that a child may be within these walls. But I find nothing.

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And then, the porch light snaps on. Scotty himself is standing there, peering down at me. “Can I help you, Detective Hughes?” he asks.

I step away from the trash can. “Yes. I have a few more questions regarding the disappearance of Philippa Jordan.”

Scotty holds open his front door. “Then please, come in. I dare say that will be more productive than searching through my rubbish.”

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“Do you mind if I look around?” I ask as I follow him inside.

“By all means.”

I search the house, finding nothing out of the ordinary. That is, until I descend into Scotty’s basement. It is used as a workshop, it seems, and toys are scattered throughout. Many of the toys are unfinished, or covered in a layer of dust – most likely not touched by a child or anyone for a very long time. I turn to leave, and then I spot it. A single, gold-colored stuffed unicorn sits on a high shelf against a wall. Goldie. Tucking the unicorn under one arm, I head upstairs to confront Scotty.

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“You told me that Philippa’s toy unicorn was the only golden unicorn,” I say. “So how do you explain this?”

Scotty shakes his head. “You misunderstood me. Philippa’s toy is the only golden unicorn I sold. However, there were two in all. This, the second golden unicorn, is my own personal property.”

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I thank Scotty for his cooperation, then leave, gritting my teeth in frustration. I had been so sure that the seemingly innocent toy seller was a twisted kidnapper in disguise. But I have no evidence of that. I had been sure that my housemate was a semi-normal human being until I discovered he was a vampire. Is there anything or anyone in this town that I can be sure of?

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Not Chloe, says a small voice in the back of my mind. Chloe cannot be trusted, either.