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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