Authors: Cynthia Baxter
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Detective and Mystery Stories, #Mystery Fiction, #Murder, #Private Investigators, #Women Veterinarians, #Long Island (N.Y.), #Horses
The moment I opened the door, Max and Lou leaped out of the van, clearly as glad to be home as I was. I left them to sniff around happily as I made a beeline for Betty Vandervoort’s front door.
While the Big House wasn’t nearly as grand as Andrew MacKinnon’s mansion, it was certainly an impressive residence. The angles of its stately white columns and brick façade were softened by the circular driveway. Well-tended flower beds and geometric bushes added to its solemn look.
Given the residence’s formal appearance, anyone who didn’t know its owner would probably have expected an equally dignified dowager to come to the door, draped in strings of pearls—or at least a pair of reading glasses on a chain. Not my Betty. In fact, just seeing her, dressed in purple linen pants, a boxy turquoise blouse edged with beads, and chandelier earrings studded with brilliant stones that echoed both colors made me feel better immediately.
“Why, Jessica! What a lovely—” Within a split second, her expression changed. I’d long suspected that Betty was a mind reader. Either that, or my distress was clearly written all over my face.
“Goodness, are you all right?” she demanded.
“Not really.” I cast her a pleading look. “But a cup of tea might help.”
“I’ll put the kettle on.”
As soon as I was settled inside Betty’s kitchen, I began to feel better. There was something comforting about watching her bustle around. I watched in silence as she filled her old-fashioned copper teakettle with water, then retrieved delicate Limoges cups and saucers from the china cabinet. Next, she grabbed a bottle off a shelf, the secret ingredient that gave her tea its magical powers.
“Tell me, Jessica,” she said firmly, finally sitting down at the table. “What happened?”
I took a deep breath. “I was making a house call on an estate in Old Brookbury early this morning, and a man who was riding there fell off a horse and was killed.”
Her eyebrows leaped up to her hairline. “That’s terrible! Was it someone you knew?”
“Not exactly. I’d only seen him once, practicing for a polo match. Stick-and-balling, they call it. I watched him—not for very long, just a few minutes. But seeing him on that horse, so powerful and so much in control, but at the same time so graceful and so...so connected with his horse...” I shook my head slowly. “It’s an image I’ll never forget.”
“And now he’s dead.” Betty’s voice was practically a whisper.
“It’s hard to imagine, but yes.”
We were both quiet for what seemed like a very long time. When Betty finally broke the silence, she spoke slowly, as if she were choosing her words carefully. “Jessica, I’m waiting for you to assure me that you have no intention of getting involved in whatever happened to this poor man. Especially since you’d never even met him.”
“Don’t worry. As tragic as his death is, it was an accident. Besides, it had nothing to do with me.”
“Good. I just wanted to make sure this wouldn’t turn into another one of those situations in which you’d take it upon yourself to ensure that truth and justice prevail.” With a little smile, she added, “These days, we can leave that up to that Nick of yours. Speaking of Nick, how is he—and how is law school going?”
“Nick is fine. He’s just busy. And stressed out.”
“Nick?” Betty blinked in surprise. “But he’s usually so calm! In fact, I didn’t know he had it in him to get stressed out about anything!”
“Me, either. But classes just started last week, and I’m already seeing an entirely new side of him.”
Actually, he’d been so busy that I’d hardly seen him at all—either his new sides or his old sides. And now he was talking about joining a study group, getting together once or twice a week with a bunch of other law students who would share their notes and pool their knowledge.
It’s a good thing I keep a photograph of Nick next to
I thought glumly,
or by now I’d have forgotten
what he looks like.
“I’ve been a little stressed out myself,” Betty admitted, jumping up to silence the whistling kettle. “Opening night is only a week and a half away, and I’m getting jittery.”
“But you love performing!”
Her face lit up in a smile. “That’s certainly true,” she said, her sapphire blue eyes twinkling. “There’s nothing like the sound of applause ringing in your ears—and knowing you’ve just put on a performance that deserves it.” Her smile faded. “Still, I haven’t been in showbiz for—well, for much too long for me to admit to. It’s terribly exciting to be in a musical again, but between you and me, I’m finding that I’m a bit rusty. And of course getting on a stage always involves a few butterflies in the stomach, even for us seasoned veterans. I’ve loved the rehearsals, but with the opening around the corner, I’m finding the prospect of dancing in front of a real live audience after all this time a little frightening. I know I
to be good at it, but I keep wondering if I still am.”
A few decades earlier, Betty had shown incredible gumption, saving a summer’s worth of wages from her waitressing job at the Paper Plate Diner in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and buying a one-way bus ticket to New York City. Her pluck had paid off. She’d taken Broadway by storm, performing in musicals like
In all the years that followed, her passion for musicals had never wavered. A few months earlier, back in June, I’d been thrilled to learn that Betty had decided to throw herself back into dancing. She’d auditioned for a community theater production of
winning the part of Katalin Helinszki in the electrifying “Cell Block Tango” dance number.
All summer, she’d bounded off to rehearsals with the Port Players four evenings a week, cradling her ballet shoes lovingly in her arms. Late at night, she’d knock at my door, her cheeks flushed and her eyes bright as she related the detail of every dance move, every comment the director made, every bit of intrigue among the cast members. It struck me that getting back into theater was precisely what she needed to stay young.
“Anyway,” Betty continued, “let me worry about my return to the stage. You can focus on that lovely boyfriend of yours. And be patient with him! I’m sure Nick could use a little moral support right now. Starting law school is no small thing—especially since he’s been out in the world working for a few years since college. Hitting the books again is going to be quite a change from the freedom he enjoyed as a private investigator. It’s going to take a lot of discipline. Plenty of back rubs, too.”
“You’re absolutely right,” I assured her. I figured I could rise to the occasion, becoming a pillar of patience and strength for our hardworking law student.
Besides, those back rubs were sounding pretty darned good.
I still had a full day ahead of me, back-to-back appointments all over the island. I generally tried to group my calls to clients’ homes, based on their location. But Long Island is well named—although an even better name would have been Long, Wide Island with Way Too Much Traffic.
Still, I never regret my decision to become a veterinarian-on-wheels. I love the feeling of having everything I need to ply my trade tucked neatly into a mobile unit. When it came to choosing a lifestyle, I really identified with that old cowboy song, “Don’t Fence Me In.” I’ve never stopped appreciating the feeling of freedom that comes from spending my days making house calls, tooling around in a van outfitted with heat and air-conditioning and running water, not to mention everything I need for performing diagnostic tests, surgery, and even dentistry.
Most of the time, I pretty much have total control over how I spend my time. Then again, sometimes my cell phone rings and my carefully constructed plans for the day go right out the window.
Which is why I eyed my phone warily when it began purring just as I was about to get onto the Long Island Expressway. Especially when I glanced at the name and number that appeared on the screen and recognized them immediately.
I eased off onto the shoulder, a firm believer in the New York State law that forbids talking on cell phones while driving. Max and Lou, wrestling for a primo spot on the seat beside me, looked surprised that we were stopping in such an unlikely spot.
“Dr. Popper,” I answered crisply.
“Hi, Dr. Popper.” I couldn’t place the high-pitched voice. “I’m sorry to bother you. You don’t know me. My name’s Kathy Kelly. I baby-sit for the Weinsteins?”
I knew the Weinsteins well, at least Lindsay Weinstein and her twin toddlers, Justin and Jason. I also knew their German shorthair pointer, King. Almost a year earlier, he’d contracted two extremely serious illnesses that dogs get from ticks, Lyme disease and ehrlichiosis. Thanks to better living through chemistry—meaning wonderfully effective antibiotics like amoxicillin and doxycycline—the spirited pointer was soon playing Frisbee with the boys again.
“Anyway, Mrs. Weinstein’s at the doctor with Jenny—that’s the new baby—and I’m here alone with the twins,” Kathy went on. “For the last hour or two, King’s been acting really weird. I found a magnet on the refrigerator with your name and number on it. I hope you don’t mind me bothering you like this.”
“Not at all, Kathy,” I assured her. “It’s really good that you called. Now tell me what’s going on with King.”
“He keeps trying to throw up, but it’s like nothing’s coming out,” she went on in the same frightened tone. “He keeps looking at his side, and he’s doing strange things like licking the air. He’s also drooling.”
“Okay, Kathy, you’ve done a great job of describing his symptoms. It sounds to me like King’s got bloat.” I made a point of sounding a lot calmer than I felt. “Stay there with him. I’m heading over to where you are right now. Just keep him quiet, and keep the kids away from him. I should be there in about fifteen minutes, okay?”
“Okay,” Kathy replied in a reedy voice.
What I didn’t tell her was that bloat—Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus, or GDV—is one of the most common causes of death in large dogs. Yet most dog owners have never even heard of it. Deep-chested dogs like German shepherds and retrievers are the most vulnerable. The dog’s stomach can literally get twisted between the esophagus and the upper intenstine, trapping fluids, food, and gas inside.
GDV has to be dealt with fast. It doesn’t take long before the animal’s blood supply gets cut off and toxins build up inside the stomach. It’s not unusual for the dog to go into shock, or even for his stomach to rupture.
I pulled back onto the road and headed toward the Long Island Expressway. Fortunately, I knew the way— and it was only a ten-minute drive.
Even before I’d pulled into the Weinsteins’ driveway, their baby-sitter flung open the front door.
“He’s in here,” Kathy called as I climbed out of my van. “In the kitchen.”
I left Max and Lou in the van, knowing I’d be coming right back with King. Kathy held the door open for me, ushering me inside. I’d assumed from her voice that she was sixteen or seventeen. But in person, she looked about fourteen. She was dressed in jeans and a faded Old Navy T-shirt, and she wore her long, chestnut brown hair straight down her back. I suspected she was one of those kids who was an A student and also found the time to belong to ten different clubs in addition to baby-sitting.
“It was really smart of you to call me,” I told her again. “Do you think you could give me a hand?”
“No problem,” she assured me. But I could see how frightened she was just by looking into her eyes.
The house seemed strangely quiet. Even the television was off. Usually, when I arrived at the Weinsteins’, three-year-old Justin and Jason were acting like hellions—despite the thick blond curls, clear blue eyes, and sweet expressions that make them look like cherubs someone painted on a cathedral ceiling. Today, however, the two of them sat on the couch, holding hands and looking like they were on the verge of tears.
“King is sick,” one of them informed me in a soft voice.
“I know,” I replied. “Kathy asked me to take a look at him.”
“Are you gonna make him better?” the other twin asked anxiously.
“I’m pretty sure he’ll be fine,” I assured him. I only hoped I’d turn out to be right.
I found the chocolate brown pointer lying in his dog bed in one corner of the spacious kitchen. His posture was hunched, and I could see mucus foaming around his lips. He recognized me immediately, and his tail thumped two or three times. I thought I could see a pleading look in his eyes as he fixed them on mine.
“It’s okay, King,” I told him softly. “We’ll take care of this in no time.” Turning to Kathy, I asked, “Do you think you could help me carry him into the van? The bed is stiff enough to serve as a stretcher.”
Together, we managed to transport King across the lawn and into my van. As usual, Max and Lou seemed to sense that they were in the presence of a sick animal. They positioned themselves far enough away to keep from being underfoot but close enough to watch what was going on. I swear, if their IQ’s were just a few points higher, I’d be able to train them to assist me. And they’d probably be great at it.
Once King was on my examining table, I had another thought. “Is it okay for you to leave the twins alone?” I asked Kathy.
“I have an idea,” she replied. “I’ll tell them to bring a few toys outside and sit on the front steps. That way, I can keep an eye on them while I help you.”
I just nodded, figuring I’d tell Kathy just how terrific she was later on, after all this was over.
I knew the distension in King’s stomach could be relieved with surgery. But I always consider cutting a last resort. With cases of bloat, I’d had good results with a procedure called gastric lavage. If that didn’t work, then I’d have to think about a more invasive method of treatment.
The first step was getting King on an IV of fluids, along with an anesthesia that would knock him out. Kathy held him down, stroking him and talking to him softly, as I inserted the needle.