Shoot First, Ask Questions Later
A Kiki Long Mystery Book 1
Pet portrait artist Kiki Long is driving to her first day of work at her new job as the Pride Falls forensic photographer when she spots a smoking car that’s skidded off the road.
After confirming nobody is inside, her natural inclination to document what she’s witnessing takes over and she starts taking pictures, which means she’s standing too close when the vehicle explodes.
Now she’s dealing with a head injury and an irate detective who accuses her messing up his crime scene. That’s nobody’s definition of a good first day.
But she did do a good job with the photos. They prove that the owner of the car didn’t die in the explosion, and they give the ornery detective a place to start his investigation.
It’s the goat that Kiki saw before she started snapping photos that makes her curious. Despite the detective’s dismissal of her idea, she starts her own amateur sleuthing along with her two best friends, Her curiosity just might just get them all killed.
I held my breath, steeling myself for what I knew was coming.
“Princess piddled,” continued the owner of the silky-haired dachshund perched on a pink pillow in my makeshift photography studio.
I did my best to maintain a professional demeanor even though I was pretty sure it wouldn’t have happened if Diana Aikens hadn’t insisted on regaling me with the tales of her entire life’s trials and tribulations for twenty minutes when they’d first arrived.
“Naughty, Princess,” she scolded the dog.
Princess turned a baleful gaze on me like it was my fault her owner insisted on treating her like a prized possession instead of a perfectly imperfect living creature with needs of her own.
“It’s not a problem,” I assured them both, scooping the pup off the quickly darkening pillow and pressing a quick kiss to the top of her head.
I was rewarded with a lick across my chin.
“If she wasn’t so beautiful,” Diana lamented, “I’d trade her in.”
I chuckled at the empty threat. She doted on the dachshund, as evidenced by the fact she showed up every two months for new photos.
Tossing the damp heart-shaped pillow aside, I put Princess down on the table.
Just then, the door to the shed—where I was conducting the shoot—burst open, letting in a blast of cold air. My friend and neighbor, Rachel, waved a humongous heart-shaped candy box. “I found it, Kiki!”
“Thanks,” I murmured.
Diana clapped with glee. “Marvelous. It’s just perfect. Thank you. Thank you.”
“Glad to help,” Rachel told her. “I get a kick out of being Kiki’s prop master. And my mom would be pleased to know her stuff is being put to good use.” She winked at me for emphasis.
I smiled back as I positioned the candy box and dog for the next shot. Rachel’s mother had been a big supporter of what my husband, Karl, called my “little hobby”. She’d even let me set up my studio in her shed. I’d been worried that when Rachel had moved in with her mom, she’d kick me out. Instead, Rachel had helped me grow the business. She told everyone she encountered about my pet photography and liked to help out doing the shoots.
“Your mother was a special lady,” Diana said. “Did you know she was the one who introduced me to Kiki, here?”
I barely listened to them as I focused on getting the best possible picture of Princess. I wanted to wrap up the session quickly since I had to drive my daughter, Paige, to the diner for work.
But art and diva dachshunds can’t be rushed.
“Any news about Karl?” Diana asked.
I was dimly aware of Rachel sucking in a breath as I suddenly found it hard to breathe.
My friend answered for me. “No new developments.”
Rachel’s tone was so cold that Diana wisely changed the subject to her recent car troubles.
While they chatted about that safe subject, my mind veered off into dangerous thoughts.
Eleven months before, my husband had taken his hot air balloon on a trip. The remains of the balloon had been found washed up on a beach in Georgia, but there’d been no sign of him. It didn’t make sense that an experienced pilot, on a clear evening, had just disappeared without even a distress call.
Paige had spent the days immediately after locked in her room watching videos from “The Price Is Right” game show. My son, Henry, had planted himself in front of the living room television watching endless hours of The Food Network.
I admit that I spent the first day in shock. I’m pretty sure that, due to Rachel’s constantly offering it, I drank my body weight in tea that day. I hadn’t had a cup of chamomile since.
I’d spent the second day trying to find my favorite spatula and fussing over my kids. Paige yelled at me. Henry ignored me. I couldn’t blame either of them, the fear and uncertainty stressed us all out.
On the third day, I couldn’t stop thinking about the questions Sheriff Rockland had asked me about Karl’s schedule and mood. I’d told the lawman that between his job and volunteering, Karl had rarely been home. And that was the honest truth. We’d been going through the motions, him complaining about work, me worrying about how the kids were doing at school, but I couldn’t remember the last time we’d had an authentic conversation. I had little more insight into my husband’s state of mind than his secretary.
That’s why I went through Karl’s things. After making sure my offspring were engrossed in their programs, I’d snuck into Karl’s bedroom. I closed the door as quietly as I could and then stood in his space for a long moment. Normally, the only time I went in there was to run the vacuum or drop off his laundry on the bed. When I reached to open his dresser drawer, I’d felt like I was invading his privacy.
Tears filled my eyes, and my breathing became shallow as I looked at the color-coded, cross-folded socks on display. My inability to master his preferred sock folding method had caused trouble early on in our marriage. As a result, I’d left his socks unpartnered in the laundry basket for many years.
I rifled through his belongings, searching like a madwoman. First, his dresser, then, his closet. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew I’d know it when I saw it.
Or didn’t see it.
His three custom-made ties—each completed with an embroidered hot air balloon, and each coveted by Karl so much that they had their own special hooks in his closet—were missing. In addition, I realized his ostrich cowboy boots were not on their assigned shelf.
He hadn’t been wearing his ostrich boots when he left.
I tried not to panic. I attempted to come up with a logical reason for him to have taken those things with him. Wanting to get away from the gaping hole caused by the missing boots, I’d stumbled out of the closet and perched on the edge of the bed.
Sitting there, I’d looked at his bedside table. Nothing seemed out of place. I pulled open the drawer, knowing full well what was kept in it.
Light glinted off our safety deposit box key, which had been tossed haphazardly in the middle of the drawer.
But that wasn’t a good thing.
The key was supposed to be stored in a key box attached to the hardware at the back of the drawer.
“Kiki…Kiki!” Rachel practically shouted, jolting me out of the memory.
Blinking, I struggled to focus on the two women in front of me.
“Diana asked if you got the shot,” Rachel told me with a tight smile, making it clear that she hadn’t missed that I’d totally spaced out.
I flashed a wide grin at my customer. “Got it. We’re all done. I’ll send you the proofs tomorrow.”
“Excellent.” Diana scooped up Princess. “I can’t wait to see them.” She hurried out of the shed and toward her car.
Rachel squinted at me appraisingly. “It’s none of my business…” she began.
“But I’m sure you’re going to give me your opinion anyway,” I interjected, hoping she’d take the hint and keep her thoughts to herself. I busied myself with unscrewing my camera from the tripod it was balanced on.
“Isn’t that what friends are for?” Before I could respond, she added quickly, “You need closure.”
“You make it sound like it’s up to me. Officially, Karl is listed as missing. It takes years to have a missing person declared dead. There won’t be closure for years.”
She crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Do you think he’s missing…or on the run?” she challenged.
Hands trembling, I put the camera in its case, staring down as I worked to avoid looking at her. “Or dead,” I whispered softly.
“Then his body needs to show up so that you and the kids can move on.”
“Technically, my children are both adults,” I told her. “I know this because they both informed me of that fact just this morning.”
Rachel grimaced sympathetically. “They’re giving you a hard time?”
I shook my head. “They’re having a hard time.”
My chest tightened as I thought about all my teenagers were dealing with; first, their father was missing, presumed dead. Then, it had come out that he’d used his position as the town’s budget officer to embezzle funds from Pride Falls. Half the town believed that I’d tampered with his hot air balloon, causing it to crash and him to die. The other half believed he’d intentionally run off with the misbegotten funds, abandoning his wife and kids. I didn’t want to believe that Karl would do that to Henry and Paige, but I knew I hadn’t meddled with his balloon.
Instead of answering Rachel, I swung the camera bag over my shoulder. “I’ve got to get Paige to the diner.”
I winced at the barb. I knew that both she and my friend, Moon, were both worried I was in denial, but I was doing the best I could.
“Thanks for your help with Diana,” I murmured. “I’ll see you soon.” With that, I practically ran out of the shed/studio.
I was halfway back to my place when a less challenging friend crossed my path.