Sneak Peek! First Chapter of A Stranger Like Me

Private investigator Angie Duval lives in her RV with her over-sized, furry best friend and partner, Galaxy. She found Galaxy abandoned as a puppy out in the Eastern Oregon desert. She’s in Eugene now to locate a missing teen when she runs into herself–or, a mirror image of herself.

Her newly discovered twin sister is named Vivi Leavitt, a school counselor who co-owns a women’s boutique and bookstore with her mother.

Vivi is a perky bookworm, so basically Angie’s identical twin and complete opposite. Or so she thinks at first.

For most twins separated at birth, it’s awesome to find the other one. But these two both know they weren’t adopted. It doesn’t make sense, except that they were lied to. Angie’s mom passed away a year ago, leaving only questions.

Angie has a teen to find, who is apparently hanging with a man who calls himself Demon, so she can’t drop everything and dig into her birth situation. In fact, she’s worked hard to forget her childhood and wants to walk away from this too…except she can’t. So suddenly she has two cases, and one’s a little too personal.

Angie and Vivi don’t like what they find when they start investigating their parents, and the case with Candice gets complicated too.

The twins want to know why they were separated and lied to…but at the same time, they don’t. However, it’s starting to look like whatever happened is bigger than just them.

* * *

Chapter One: Angie

 

Angie Duval glanced at the photo of the missing teen taped to her Winnebago’s dashboard. Had that been Candice she’d glimpsed yesterday?

The possible sighting happened at dusk. She thought it was Candice up ahead, walking with a group of teens. She had hurried to catch up when they rounded a corner and mixed into the downtown crowd. She’d followed the foot traffic for three blocks before conceding she couldn’t see anything.

Sighing, Angie tapped her fingers on the steering wheel while scratching Galaxy’s head with her other hand. “Ready for another wild goose chase?” she asked her partner and best friend.

“Raaahahhaaa!”

Galaxy was a vocal breed, although Angie wasn’t sure what breed exactly. German Shepherd ears. Husky voice. Surprising intelligence. She’d found Galaxy as a tiny gray, speckled puppy, all alone out on a desert road. The specks had looked liked stars to Angie, hence the name. The tiny fluff ball was now over a hundred pounds and had enough personality for ten dogs.

She also shed enough long dog hair for about twenty dogs.

“Alright, let’s hit the street, baby girl.” Angie moved back into the open living space of the mini RV to click Galaxy’s leash onto her collar. The giant dog jumped outside, ignoring the stairwell, and shook her long coat of hair in glee.

They set off out of the paid parking lot at the edge of downtown Eugene, Oregon. The earlier summer rain had cleared and it was a whopping seventy-five degrees, a somewhat cool day for mid June in western Oregon.

She wore her typical leggings and black T-shirt over a tank top. Hopefully it wouldn’t heat up too much, although more for Galaxy’s sake than hers.

Angie was petite and small boned, and looked young for her twenty-five years. Her wavy hair probably made her look younger still. Before, she didn’t like it, but now it helped her fit in with teens and do her job better.

A tall man with sun-streaked hair was playing a guitar on the corner. He looked a lot like those old pictures of Jesus. They nodded at each other as she passed by.

As she walked farther downtown, she passed groups of people sitting on blankets, playing drums, and passing a pipe. Clouds of pot smoke floated here and there. She tried to walk Galaxy around them, but she also needed to check their faces.

It was probably too much to hope she’d spot Candice again today, but either way, she’d keep at it. She shivered, a memory of cold, long nights on the streets creeping up her back. Focus. She had to be present and aware, always ready.

So she brought her mind back to this place and the people here. She wasn’t a stranger to Eugene, having grown up in Portland, two hours north. But city people tended to stick within their own city, in her experience.

She neared the 5th Street Saturday Market, which didn’t allow dogs into the park area. The teens usually hung around outside anyway, so she continued walking to make a few laps around the perimeter.

She checked groups of teens amidst the homeless, potheads, artisans, and market goers. People were calling downtown a cesspool, and she could see why, but she also noted a police presence and she’d heard talk about making downtown safer.

This town was much more than its problems. Eugene was a college town full of diverse students, Oregon Duck fans, professionals, and the world’s most opinionated and eco-friendly hippies. Angie identified with that last group the most. She didn’t brew beer, grow a garden, raise chickens or bees, but her aunt who lived in Southern Oregon did a lot of those.

There was community and culture here too, but it was the downtown culture that drew runaways. People from all over the country came here for the benefits. Several sources had told her that other states actually bussed homeless people here and dropped them off. Portland had a similar situation, but something really drew people to Eugene.

Was that why Candice came here?

Candice Nicole Farmington. Sixteen. Blond hair, blue eyes. Fit. The perfect target for all kinds of creeps. Older men would take her in, giddy to find a willing and naive young girl. Sex traffickers would grab her and ship her off to god knew where. Groups of teens living the streets would welcome her. Small groups liked to “join up” and pool resources, usually with some half-baked scheme about going somewhere for a festival or culture they’d heard about.

This would be her second time coming to the outdoor craft and farmer’s market for this case. She’d gotten into town last Friday, came here Saturday, and then spent the week exploring and finding out what she could—which wasn’t much so far, except that people had seen Candice, and Angie might have spotted her from behind. Too bad she hadn’t been able to catch up with her.

Having a dog helped. Everyone wanted to pet the gentle giant, and Galaxy was a real people-person. Er, people-dog.

A group of girls stood chatting by a group of shirtless drummers, and Angie slowed down. A redhead girl with pretty freckles and bright red lipstick smiled at Galaxy. “What’s her name?”

The girl looked about fourteen while others looked a little older.

“Galaxy. It seemed to fit her fur and starry eyes.”

The girl squatted down to pet the dog, followed by a few others. Galaxy gave little sniffy-kisses on the girl’s cheeks, making her giggle. They were so damn young and innocent. They were out here to have fun on a Saturday, but Angie couldn’t help but think about all the creeps preying on them.

“What kind of dog is she?”

Angie went into her dog story and then how she liked Eugene so far. How she traveled around with Galaxy, working as a photographer. She even gave them her business card—the cover business card for “Dany Davis” with Perfect Finish Photography.

“That’s so cool,” one of the older girls gushed. “I’m going to do that. Just travel the US. The world too. Maybe I’ll get a dog like this one.”

Yeah, the dog really did open doors. She kept them talking while trying to listen to the side conversations. A phrase jumped out when someone said, “that new girl.”

In the next pause, Angie said, “Hey, maybe you guys can help me out.” She pulled out the photograph. “My cousin was supposed to meet up with me here last week and I haven’t heard from her. Any of you seen her?”

She held out the photo.

“Hey, I know Natasha!”

Natasha? Good thing Angie hadn’t said her real name. “Is she doing okay?”

“I think so. I mean, she’s got a few friends. That guy Demon takes care of her.”

“Demon?” Seriously? Angie tried her hardest to keep her reaction off her face. Damn it, this case might have just gotten even more serious. According to her friends, Candice had come here with her boyfriend.

“That’s just what he goes by, but he’s a real sweetheart, really.” The girl smiled, confident in her assessment of others. It was a typical line, too. Young girls seemed to think any man that was nice to them was a good guy. They never questioned motives.

“What’s he like?” Angie asked. “Any idea why he calls himself that?”

Two girls exchanged a look and didn’t say anything. The third, the redhead who had first greeted Angie said, “Because he’s like a ghost.”

“So you don’t know what he looks like?” Angie was asking too many questions but had to try.

“Big…a lot of tattoos.”

“A dragon on his arm.” The second girl swiped a hand down her forearm as she talked.

“He might look scary…but not when he smiles.” They all nodded.

“And he’s helping Natasha?” Angie asked. “Like with a place to stay?”

The group shrugged noncommittally.

“Wonder if I could finally find her,” Angie said, almost like she was talking to herself.

“She hasn’t been around in a few days.” The redhead seemed to feel bad at their lack of information and added, “I think she likes that bookstore up on 6th. When she’s not with Demon. He’s never awake this early so she’s probably there.”

“Got a name for the bookstore?”

Three girls said three different names, Bird Song, Blue Heron, Blue Something, and one girl added, “But it has other stuff too. It’s not just a bookstore.”

Angie talked for another minute before getting away. She made a B-line back to her Winnebago and checked Google maps for bookstores, then drove up to 6th street. Galaxy loudly drained her water bowl as they drove. There was a Blue Moon Books coming up, which sounded like what the girls meant.

Before she reached the bookstore, however, Angie spotted another shop called Blue Magic Women’s Mercantile and it had a big sign exclaiming, “Books! Clothes! Coffee! Soaps and More!”

Someone was enthusiastic about their offerings.

She pulled into the parking lot—it had “more than books” so it felt like a good start. She turned off the RV, refilled Galaxy’s water, opened the side windows to let a breeze through, and went into the shop.

The aroma of coffee and pastries met her, along with…fruit? She spotted signs for handcrafted soap, explaining that last smell. It had everything promised on the outside sign and more.

It was a cute shop, but would a runway teenage girl hang out here? Still, she was here, so she went with the direct route and approached a guy who looked her age or a little younger at the register. He was digging around like he was looking for something.

Seeing a male working in this store seemed a bit odd. He had brown hair and stubble along his haw, and when he looked up, a smoldering gaze.

“Hey there,” she greeted, pulling up a warm smile.

He straightened, and she read “Cole” on his nametag before noticing that he was staring at her in shock. His eyebrows came down slowly as his expression turned confused and suspicious. On edge now, she wondered how he’d been alerted that she might stop by.

“I’m looking for my cousin,” she started, thrown by his expression. “And I heard she comes here a lot. A young girl that goes by Natasha.” She had the photo ready and showed it to him.

“Vivi?” he asked…but he also seemed like he was calling out the name. She couldn’t tell if he was talking to her or something else. Was Candice going by both Natasha and Vivi? His gaze shifted over toward the window, then back at her, and then darted back and forth.

Was Candice—Natasha—in the shop?

Angie planned to back up slowly and spot her. Offer her money to talk. But as she backed up, Cole’s eyes kept darting back and forth, and she couldn’t stop herself. She turned to look.

It wasn’t who she expected to see leaning out from behind a bookshelf.

It was…someone who looked exactly like her.

A pair of questioning blue eyes stared back at her, out of the same heart-shaped face that Angie saw in the mirror every day. No makeup like her. Same light brown, wavy hair, except a little longer and parted in the middle instead of the side. Same height. Same everything.

They blinked at each other for what felt like a full minute before the other woman finally spoke.

“Is Natasha in trouble?”

The words surprised Angie. She’d actually forgotten why she was there—while staring at a copy of herself—but the question jolted her back into work mode. She needed something else to focus on, something to do to get around this crazy thing.

“You know her?” She took a small step toward her. “Her family is worried about her. Can I have a minute of your time?”

“Uh, yeah. Of course. Would you like to sit down?” She waved towards a small table, then met Angie half way there. “I’m Vivi.” She held out her hand.

“Dany,” Angie said her fake name, taking Vivi’s hand in a firm but not too strong handshake. They were studying each other but Angie didn’t want to be the one to say it out loud. They sat down and Vivi asked Cole to bring them coffee.

Vivi wore a long dress—like a coverall dress over a long-sleeved shirt that made Angie think of her arts and craft teacher from third grade. It was like seeing the bookworm version of herself.

“So about Natasha?” Vivi asked.

Angie pulled out the photograph, noticing a tremor in her hand. “Is this the Natasha you know?”

Vivi nodded. “Is she okay?” she asked again.

“When did you last see her?”

“A few days ago. Ah…Wednesday. You said you’re her cousin?”

Cole slowly set two mugs of coffee down as he looked back and forth between them. “So…. Vivi, you never mentioned that you have a twin.”

She gave him an odd expression, something you’d expect a teacher to do to silence a student. He slid backwards and returned behind the counter. It wasn’t any less awkward with him over there.

“Do you know how to reach her?” Angie pressed. “This is time sensitive.”

“Why?”

Angie drummed her fingers on the table, then wrapped her hands around the mug to stop her nervous habit. “Listen, I’m going to level with you.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Vivi said dryly.

Angie wasn’t sure how to take that.

“I’m not her cousin. I’m a private investigator. Her mother hired me to find her and make sure she’s okay. She’s sixteen, and her name is Candice Farmington, but apparently she’s going by Natasha and running around with a guy named Demon.”

Demon? Seriously?”

“That’s what I thought. But yeah, that’s what he calls himself. The girls downtown assured me he’s a real sweetheart.” They shared a raised-eyebrow look before Angie continued. “Candice left Boise a month ago, without leaving a note or anything. She packed clothes, so the police are treating it as a runaway case. They’re not doing much outside of sending out her photo. She told her friends that she wanted to come to Eugene with her boyfriend Regan. He might be out of the picture already.”

Vivi leaned back with a thoughtful look on her face. So weird to watch someone with the same face!

“She’s brought a few different girls with her, but mostly she comes alone during the day. I don’t mind teenagers hanging out here, especially if they’re reading. She likes the beanbag in the back corner.”

“She seemed okay to you?”

“Yes, she did.” Vivi shrugged. “I mean, she seemed a little lonely. We talked sometimes but she’s never told me anything too personal.”

Angie leaned back too, and took a drink of her coffee, sweetened with cream and sugar. She pulled a small notepad out of her pocket. “Can you write down any names you remember? Days and times she came by? Any details at all?”

Vivi nodded and pulled the notepad over, mumbling, “I could show you how to take digital notes.”

Luckily Vivi didn’t see Angie’s expression. Of course she could take notes on her phone and then add them to her case file on her laptop—but she found it was useful to have people write down what they remembered on paper. It triggered more information.

Plus, she used the writing trick so she could have a few minutes to notice more details about the person or place while they were distracted.

While Vivi wrote, Angie glanced around at the small coffee shop in the corner, the wall of homemade jewelry, a section of homemade soaps, shelves of books, and a clothing section.

“My mom hand makes the soaps and lotions in small batches,” Vivi said, sliding the notepad back over. “This is our store. I’m also a school counselor.”

“Ah, you look the part,” Angie said, mentally comparing Vivi’s long dress to her own black leggings and black T-shirt. Vivi didn’t seem to take offense at it.

“Are you from around here?” Vivi asked.

“No.” She nodded toward the RV out the window. “That’s home.”

Vivi turned to look, and Angie glanced too because she wanted to check on Galaxy, who stood proudly in the middle of the front RV window. She looked like a wolf…except for her big doggie smile and that giant tongue hanging out the side of her mouth.

“Oh my goodness! Look at your dog! What’s his name?”

“Her name is Galaxy.”

“Does she need some water? A treat?” Vivi was on her feet, and as weird as it felt, they went outside together and Angie let Galaxy out, thinking, this might be interesting.

Galaxy didn’t stop and do a double take. She treated Vivi like any new person, standing up on her back feet, sniffing, vocalizing all kinds of weird doggie talk. Vivi pulled a treat from an oversized pocket on her skirt.

“What kind of dog is she?” Vivi asked without looking up.

“A mix of Shepherd and Husky, as far as I can tell, and maybe some other large breeds. I found her abandoned out on Highway 97 in the middle of last winter. I had no idea she’d get so big.”

“Someone dumped her? Poor baby. Yes you are. Poor puppy. But you sure look happy now!” Vivi dissolved into baby talk and giggles as Galaxy nuzzled her neck and sniffed her all over.

Galaxy looked up in pure contentment, so Angie couldn’t muster a dirty glare at the betrayal.

But then Galaxy wiggle-waggled up to her, her hips doing a crazy swing dance as she let loose with a long and thoughtful vocalization.

Vivi laughed. “Wow, what a talker. She’s very affectionate, too.”

Angie almost launched into telling her how Galaxy loved babies and toddlers, and how calm she was as she approached them and asked to snuggle. But what was she doing? Why were they out here shooting the breeze?

“I should get focused back on finding Candice. This is the first real lead I’ve found.”

Vivi frowned and looked her over. Angie knew she didn’t look like the typical P.I., and that was exactly why she could work her way in and find lost teenage girls.

“So what do you do now?” Vivi asked.

“I go back to talking to people, see who else has seen her. Maybe run into her.” She pulled out a business card and gave it to her.

“Perfect Finish Photography?” Vivi asked in confusion.

“It’s my cover job, but it’s my cell number.”

Vivi looked doubtful.

“If Candice comes by, will you call me? If she looks like she’s going to leave, go ahead and tell her about me. I have two hundred in cash for her if she’ll just talk to me and call her mom.”

“Okay… I’ll let you know if I see her.” Vivi hesitated, clearly about to say more.

“See you around,” Angie said first, as she hurried up the steps, calling Galaxy.

“Wait! I have a lot of questions.”

“Doesn’t everyone?” Angie shut the door and started the RV, but waited for Vivi to take a few steps back before putting it in reverse.

Galaxy announced a long list of her own questions as they drove off.

“What was I supposed to do?” Angie asked herself and the dog. “Sit down and share life stories or something? I don’t have time.” She glanced down at Galaxy and got the uncanny feeling that the dog was judging her.

“Hey, just because Vivi looks just like me doesn’t mean anything.”

Galaxy gave her a knowing look.

 

***

A Stranger Like Me releases in less than a month! Pre-order here!

 

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