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Dax Traub's motorcycle sales and repair shop in the heart of Thunder Canyon might as well not have been open on the Monday before Thanksgiving. It was after four o'clock in the afternoon, and not a single person had come through the glass door or so much as paused to peer into the showroom through the storefront windows. He'd spent the day doing exactly what he was doing at that momentreading articles in motorcycle magazines that were depressing the hell out of him. Articles thatonce upon a time had been about him. Articles that could have been about him now, had things turned out differently.
The radio was on in the background, and at first Dax thought the small, quiet voice had come from there. But then he realized that a song was playing and that didn't seem likely.
Maybe I'm hearing things "Scooz me."
No, he was sure he was hearing something. But with the radio louder than the voice he couldn't tell where the voice was coming from.
He was standing at the counter, facing the front of the store, and no one had come in. But even though it didn't make any sense, he leaned far over the counter and peered down just in case he'd missed something.
There was no one there. "Scooz me!" The small voice became more insistent and slightly louder. Loud enough for him to finally realize it was coming from behind him.
Dax straightened and glanced over his shoulder. Sure enough, there stood a little girl to go with the small voice.
He pivoted on his heel to face her, dropping his gaze to the height of a motorcycle tire on display just to the right of the doorway that led to the garage portion of the shop in the rear of the building. That's where the child was standing without any sign of timidity, her head of tousled blond curls held high, her crystal-clear blue eyes waiting expectantly for his attention.
"Hi," he said with a note of question in his tone.
"Hi," the bit-of-nothing responded.
"Can I help you?" he asked. "I wan' one of these big shiny bikes," the child announced, bypassing Dax and rounding the counter to go into his showroom, dragging a large shoulder-strapped purse along with her.
Dax looked beyond the spot the child had abandoned, wondering if someone elsean adultwas going to appear, too.
No one did, and his tiny customer wasn't allowing him time to investigate because she was talking to him, apparently explaining her need for one of his big shiny bikes.
"Jackass says I'm a baby and my bike is jus' a baby bike and his is a big boy bike and I wan' one tha's bigger 'n his 'cuz I'm not a baby. And red."
Dax followed her onto his showroom floor. "Jackass?" he repeated, knowing he sounded thick but unsure exactly what this kid was doing here and talking about.
"He's in my school and he lives on my street, too."
"That's somebody's name? Jackass? Or is that just what you call him because he calls you a baby?" Which was an idea that secretly appealed to the ornery side of Dax.
"Tha's his nameJackass," the barely-bigger-than-a-minute child said as if it should have been obvious.
Still, he persisted skeptically, asking, "That's his name?"
"Jackass. We haves a lot of Jacks at school there's Jack W. and Jack M. and Jack"
"S.," Dax said as light finally dawned. "Jack S."
"Jackass," she confirmed.
Dax couldn't recall the last time he'd smiled, let alone laughed, but one snuck up on him then and he couldn't help chuckling. "Of course. And you want a bike that's bigger than his. And red."
"That one," the little girl said decisively, pointing at a Harley-Davidson classic street bike.
"Good choice," he decreed. "And who might I be selling that one to?"
"To me," she said, once more, as if he were dim-witted.
"And who would you be?"
"I wou' be me." Again a statement of the obvious, only now his lack of understanding brought a frown to crinkle her cherubic face with its rosy cheeks, button nose and ruddy-pink lips.
Dax had no experience or knowledge or contact with children, so he had nothing to gauge how old this one might be. But it was beginning to sink in that, despite her self-assurance, she was very young.
"What's your name?" he said more succinctly.
"Kayla Jane Solomon. Wus yur name?"
"My name? My name is Dax."
"Tha's a funny name."
"Funny or not, that's what it is."
"I haves a friend who gots a dog whose name is Max. Like Max, only Dax?"
"Right," he said, stifling a grin.
"Dax," she repeated, trying it out.
"Kayla Jane Solomon," Dax countered. "And how old are you, Kayla Jane Solomon?"
Had she not held up three short fingers, he would have thought she was answering with something other than a number.
"You're three," he said. "You're Kayla Jane Solomon and you're three years old."
"Free and some months," she elaborated. "But I can never memember how many."
"And where exactly did you come from?" Dax asked.
"The shop," she answered simply.
His building shared a connecting passage with the building directly behind it, and in that other building was the Clip 'n Curl beauty salon. Since his back door and the garage door that opened onto the alley were both closed, the Clip 'n Curl had to be the shop she was referring to. Although no one had ever come in here that way before.
"Won't someone be looking for you?"
"I need a bike," she reminded him, refusing to be deterred any longer from her goal.
Dax didn't really know what to do with her. He was bored out of his mind, and this tiny tot was more entertainment than he'd had in a while, so he decided to play along. Temporarily, at any rate.
"How are you going to pay for it?" he asked. Kayla Jane Solomon dragged the purse nearer to her, unzipped it and produced a lady's wallet from inside. She opened the wallet, took out the paper money and held it up to him. "Is this 'nough?"
Dax shook his head. "Sorry. Bikes this big cost a lot more than that."
Kayla replaced the money in the wallet, the wallet in the purse and then looked up at him again, still undaunted and now flashing him a smile that was riddled with mischief.
"Maybe you could jus' gib me one, then," she suggested sweetly.
And once again, Dax Traub had to laugh in spite of himself.
"I have a minute now, Kayla. Do you still want a cup of hot choc"
Shandie Solomon came up short when she stepped into the Clip 'n Curl's break room. Barely fifteen minutes earlier she'd left her three-year-old with a snack and Kayla's favorite DVD playing on a portable DVD player at the table where the stylists sat to eat and chat when they didn't have a customer. Only now, Kayla wasn't there.
"Kayla?" Shandie called from the center of the break room. Sometimes, if the precocious little girl heard her mother coming, Kayla liked to hide behind the old vinyl sofa that also occupied the space and then jump out to surprise Shandie.
But this time, when she looked behind the couch, she found nothing but dust bunnies.
Kayla wasn't under the microwave stand or hiding beside the refrigerator, so Shandie opted to look in the next likeliest place her daughter might bethe bathroom. "Kayla? Are you in there?" she said after knocking on the closed restroom door in the hallway outside the break room.
"No, she's not in here," came the answer from one of the other stylists.
"Have you seen her?" Shandie asked.
"She was in the break room when I came in here." An answer that didn't help Shandie at all.
"Okay, thanks," she said, heading back to the main area of the salon.
The entire place was in the middle of the remodeling that was part of the reason Shandie had come to Thunder Canyon. Her cousin Judy had asked her to move to Montana and buy into the business. The Clip 'n Curl, Judy had said, needed new life breathed into it or it wouldn't survive in the town's new climate of change and growth.
Because of the construction, everything was in disarraya manicure/pedicure area was being built, existing stations were crammed with anything that would fit under their sinks to clear other spaces for work, plumbing and electrical changes were being made, and plastic tarps hung from the ceiling to section off the work being done on new stations. It all made for a number of enticing hiding spots for a tiny three-year-old.
"Kayla?" Shandie repeated yet again, scanning the area. "Has anyone seen my daughter?"
The other stylist, who was coloring a customer's hair, said she hadn't, and the customer chimed in to concur.
From behind one of the tarps, the cabinetmaker said, "She's not in here with me."
Concern began a crawl up Shandie's spine. "She didn't leave the shop, did she?"
The stylist at work on the patron's highlights said, "Not from the front. I've been out here since you picked her up from preschool and brought her in with you, and she hasn't been back this way."
"The bell over the door hasn't gone off, either," the customer contributed.
"But I don't know about the alley door," the stylist added. "Maybe you should check it."
Shandie spun around and picked up her pace, hurrying from there through every possible nook and cranny, even glancing through the window that looked out onto the alley and the motorcycle shop on the opposite side of it. But there were no signs of her daughter.
"She has to be around somewhere," Shandie muttered to herself. Then, in a louder, firmer voice, she said, "Kayla Jane Solomon, where are you?"
Using her daughter's full name should have let the child know she meant business, but still there was no response.
Adrenaline was tying Shandie into tighter and tighter knots.
"Kayla, this isn't funny. Where are you?" she said, feeling and sounding on the verge of terror as her mind raced with awful thoughts.
But again there was no response to her plea. There were a lot of hiding places in the laundry room, though. In the revamping of the shop Shandie and her cousin were adding massage rooms, a sauna, a relaxation space and a room that would alternate between an aerobic workout room and a yoga room. As a result, the laundry room was now also used for storage, and because Shandie had yet to organize it, things were stacked and piled everywhere.
"Come out now, Kayla," Shandie ordered as she searched behind everything. But this time what Shandie's search brought her to was the door to the utility room. And it was ajar.
"Kayla?" she called again as she opened the door and went in herself.
The buildings that housed the Clip 'n Curl and the motorcycle shop behind it had once been owned by the same person. That person had connected the two properties across the alley, extending the room that contained the Clip 'n Curl's furnace, water heater and electrical panel to reach that other structure. Kayla wasn't in the utility room, either, but there was a door on the other end of it that led to the motorcycle shop. And that door was wide open.
With her heart in her throat once more at the thought of her little girl going through the motorcycle shop and out that front door to who knew where, Shandie crossed the utility closet and rapped on the door that was open into a garage.
"Hello? Anyone?" she called as she went from the utility room into the garage without waiting for an answer or an invitation, too worried about where Kayla might have gone now to hesitate. "Is anybody here? Kayla?"