The toddler cried so loudly that I was tempted to cover my ears with both hands. Little Marissa was distraught, and she wasn’t afraid to tell the world how upset she felt. Her mother lifted the brown-eyed, blonde cherub from the stroller, balanced the baby on one hip, and jostled her gently. “Sh, sh,” Allison Straker whispered to her daughter in a comforting voice.
“I’m sorry, Allison, but are you sure?” Clancy Whitehead, my dear friend and right-hand person, was polite but exasperated. “Isn’t it possible Marissa dropped her gray bunny on the way into the store?”
Allison shook her head. “Afraid not. I remember her having it while we were looking at the albums. It sticks in my mind because Marissa took Gray Bunny out of my hands and kissed him. I was thinking what a cute photo it would make.”
She was right. Here at Time in a Bottle, the premiere scrapbook and craft store in St. Louis, we live for great photos like the one that Allison was describing. According to our accountant, this shop has become a destination business. People come from all over the United States to visit us because we’ve earned a reputation as being consumer-friendly, knowledgeable, and on-trend with our selections. Unlike some shops, we’ve always been child-friendly, too. In fact, this week marked our first eight days of being dog-friendly as well. Gracie, my harlequin Great Dane, has always hung out in the back in her doggy playpen. But now we have four-legged friends roaming the store. As a result of the change in policy, we have more traffic than ever. There could be problems down the road, but for now, having fur-babies around is a pleasant distraction.
Of course, right this minute, the problem wasn’t with a fur-baby. It was with a real-life, skin-and-bones, baby who was upset because her favorite toy was missing. Clancy and I had no choice but to launch a search party.
“Glad I dressed down today,” said Clancy as she looked over at me. We were both on our hands and knees, crawling around the floor. I started to say that her designer-label black jeans and black silk blouse didn’t exactly qualify as dressing down to me, but I was interrupted as two dogs went hurtling past. Sunny, a white terrier, was hot on the heels of Athena, a beautiful King Charles Cavalier spaniel. The two were having a great time running around the store in circles. As they made their circuit, Bailey, a little mixed-breed mutt, probably a Bichon-poodle cross, barked her encouragement. She was sitting off to one side, chewing on something. The way she held her prize between her two front paws was really cute. Meanwhile the dog owners were having a grand time talking about their fur-babies’ antics. Sunny and Athena were owned by two neighbors in the same apartment building, while Bailey belonged to Mrs. Thatcher, a new customer from the southern suburbs.
“Clancy, did you look under the rolling shelves?” I sat up, resting my butt on my calves.
She nodded. “Yes, I have crawled every square inch of this store.”
I thought a second. “Could Marissa have tossed it and could it have landed somewhere higher than the floor? Like on a lower level shelf?”
“Worth a look.” Clancy struggled to her feet. Once up, she offered me a hand. I wobbled a bit, but eventually I made it to a vertical position. “You take the left side of the store, and I’ll take the right.”
Ten minutes went by. My canvass of the store was interrupted several times by customers with questions. However, I stuck to good search protocols by walking a grid pattern. Even so, I didn’t see Gray Bunny, although I did hear Marissa continuing to cry. I felt sorry for the toddler, but worse for her mother who couldn’t console her baby.
“Found it!” Clancy shouted. She waved a limp gray form over her head.
I raced from the back of the store to where my friend was standing. Allison heard Clancy’s good news. She joined us from the front of the store. We arrived at Clancy’s side simultaneously as my pal gingerly held up the stuffed toy. Marissa reached for Gray Bunny, but Clancy held it just out of the baby’s grip.
“Allison? You might want to take Gray Bunny home and wash him before you give him back to Marissa. I’m just warning you because the toy is wet with slobber.” Clancy’s index finger and thumb held the bunny away from her body in the universal gesture of disgust.
“What happened? Where’d you find it?” I realized a chunk was gone from Gray Bunny’s ear.
Just then, I felt a tiny scratching at the back of my calf. I turned to see Bailey, pawing my leg.
“Don’t pick her up.” Clancy glowered at the mass of white curls and the merry black eyes. “She’s our culprit.”
Allison’s eyes traveled from the dog to the toy that Clancy was still holding. “What do you mean?”
“I had to wrestle this out of Bailey’s mouth. She was chewing on it. See? Part of the ear is missing.” Using her free hand, Clancy pointed to the weird chunk taken out of Gray Bunny’s floppy ear. “I even took a photo of Bailey holding onto the toy for dear life.”
“Bailey? Bailey, where are you?” Mrs. Thatcher called out. We signaled for her to come over and join us. When she heard the story, she shook her head in dismay. “Did Bailey do that? Did my little lambkins steal somebody’s toy? Bailey? That’s not nice. I am so, so sorry! She loves her stuffed toys at home.”
“Let’s chalk this up to a case of mistaken identity,” I suggested. “Bailey couldn’t distinguish dog toys from Marissa’s lovey, could she?”
I scooped up Bailey and handed her to her owner, while Clancy passed the soggy toy to Allison, who shrugged and handed it to Marissa. “A little dog slobber never hurt anyone. As long as we’ve got Gray Bunny all is well.”
With that, all of us returned to the enjoyable business of talking about crafts and hobbies. A little later when the store was empty, Clancy and I had a good laugh over the incident.
“I want to show you what I made with our photo-editing software while you were busy with customers,” she said, handing me a WANTED poster. In the center was a color photo of Bailey with Marissa’s toy in her mouth. Hanging from the dog’s neck was a fake sign with numbers like authorities put on someone who’s been arrested. But the funniest part was the text that read: All thieves will be prosecuted! Two legs, four legs, six legs, a dollar. We will prosecute, even if you holler!
You can read more about Kiki in Fatal, Family, Album, the 13th book in the “Kiki Lowenstein” mystery series.
After learning that their nanny isn’t the person they thought she was, Kiki and her husband Detweiler must face tough decisions about childcare. And then the drive-by shooting of a forgettable woman changes everything. How far is Kiki willing to go to protect her children–and the children of a woman she’s never met?
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About the author
Joanna Campbell Slan is the award-winning and national bestselling author of three mystery series. The first book in this series—Paper, Scissors, Death–was a finalist for the Agatha Award. There are now thirteen books and nearly 30 short stories detailing Kiki’s life. Learn more at joannacampbellslan.com.
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