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
What the heck,
Might as well do this right.
When I went back into the living room, Nick was nowhere in sight. Cat had sprawled out underneath the coffee table and Prometheus was attacking a slice of apple, but the dogs were gone, too.
Puzzled, I went over to the front door and opened it. “Nick?” I called, sticking my head out. So much for my theory that he’d taken Max and Lou out for a walk or a quick game of Frisbee.
Then I had a brainstorm. The bedroom. Of course. He’d said himself that he had big plans for the evening, our first together since the weekend before. And I noticed the door was closed.
Things were definitely starting to get interesting. Wearing a grin of my own, I stepped into the bathroom and checked my reflection in the mirror. I pulled the elastic band out of my hair, ran a comb through it, and smoothed it down around my shoulders. Then, just to get into the mood, I undid an extra button on my forest green polo shirt, embroidered with, “Jessica Popper, D.V.M.”
I grabbed the candle and the matches. As I opened the bedroom door, my heart was pounding. I expected to see Nick lying on the bed, half-draped in a sheet, perhaps with a rose in his teeth. I could even picture a T-shirt thrown over the lampshade to help create the right mood.
Instead, the room was pitch black.
Even more intriguing,
I told myself, my heart pounding even faster.
Moving cautiously in the dark, I set the candle down on what I knew was the top of the dresser. I was about to strike a match when I heard a deep, rasping sound that could only mean one thing.
Nick was snoring.
I lit the candle. Sure enough, he was sprawled across the bed. Fully clothed and fast asleep. Lou was glommed onto one side, resting his chin on Nick’s stomach and gazing at me woefully with his huge, brown eyes. Max was curled up between Nick’s legs looking like a fur pillow—or maybe a fur hot-water bottle.
“Nick?” I said softly.
As I expected, I got no response.
I thought I hated lawyers, I reflected as I climbed into bed next to him with a loud sigh. But it turns out that I hate law schools even more.
“When you’re young and you fall off a horse, you may break something. When you’re my age and you fall off, you splatter.”
thought I’d seen the last of Heatherfield for a few days. But I found out I was wrong early the next morning. Very early.
When the shrill ring of my cell phone dragged me out of a deliciously deep sleep, I glanced at my alarm clock to see if it could possibly be as early as it felt. The red numbers glowed 7:01.
had decided it was okay to call any time after seven, I thought crossly, even on a Saturday.
That somebody turned out to be Johnny Ray Cousins. I knew that as soon as I croaked “Hello?” and heard a gravelly, “Dr. Popper?”
“Yes,” I mumbled, swirling my tongue around my mouth to clean out the cobwebs of sleep.
“We got a problem.”
Those words were enough to snap anybody awake.
“Braveheart?” I demanded, my heartbeat instantly escalating.
“Nah, he’s fine,” Johnny Ray informed me. “But it looks like we got a mare with a bad impaction.”
Serious, yes. An emergency that couldn’t wait another hour or two, not really.
But by that point, I was fully awake. “I’ll be there in about an hour,” I told him. “In the meantime, hold back on feed.”
“I’ll be waitin’.”
I glanced over at Nick, who was still fast asleep. Sighing softly, I climbed out of bed.
Of course, my animals were already in full gear. Promotheus was an early riser, since he was always— well, up with the birds. Cat was sleeping in more and more these days, lingering in a drowsy state as she lay on the rag rug in front of the refrigerator. Still, it wasn’t much of a stretch for her to open her eyes, officially acknowledging the start of a new day.
Max and Lou, of course, were like two firefighters, on call twenty-four hours a day. Max, being a terrier, had a true type A personality, shifting into an energetic mode in the blink of an eye. As for Lou, as a Dalmatian he had an affinity for the fire-fighting life in his genes.
I couldn’t say the same for my beau. I’d just gotten the coffee going when Nick stumbled into the kitchen, looking so dazed he could have been sleepwalking. A clump of his dark brown hair stuck up at a funny angle, and only one eye was open.
“Whazzup?” he mumbled, scratching his head and turning a bad hair day into a disastrous hair day.
“Go back to bed, Nick,” I said soothingly. “I’ve got an early call. Another polo pony. I’ll just let the dogs out and grab some coffee, and then I’ll be out of here. But I should be home in a couple of hours.”
“Leave the dogs.” He paused to yawn loudly. “I’ll take them out for a run later. We could both use the exercise.”
“Great. Now get some sleep. You need it.”
Nick muttered something incomprehensible, then turned and shuffled back to the bedroom.
As the coffeepot burped and chugged, I threw open the front door and followed Max and Lou outside. There was a lot to be said for being up and at ’em this early in the day. The sun was low in the sky and the air was fresh, giving the world that pristine, Garden of Eden feeling. I felt like I was the only person in the world.
Until I heard a hearty, “Morning, Jessica!”
I turned and saw Betty emerging from the wooded area that surrounded the Big House. There would have been something romantic about the vision of a lone soul communing with nature except that the lone soul in question was dressed in orange sweatpants, a baggy pink New York City Ballet T-shirt, and shiny silver Nikes that looked as if they’d been issued by NASA.
“Good morning, Betty. You’re certainly up bright and early!”
“Oh, I’m always up at this hour,” she assured me, leaning over to pat Max and Lou, who’d immediately made a beeline for her. As she lavished affection on them and they shamelessly lapped it up, she said, “Best part of the day, as far as I’m concerned. Of course, used to be I was coming home around this time, my head buzzing from a long night of dreamy music and my feet barely able to keep still in my dancing shoes. Which reminds me: I’ve got some tickets for you.”
“Five complimentary passes for opening night.”
“Thanks, Betty. I’m really looking forward to it.”
“I thought you might want to invite that nice friend of yours, Suzanne.”
“That’s a great idea,” I told her—then immediately experienced second thoughts.
Suzanne Fox was one of my closest friends from our student days. While we were students at Bryn Mawr College, we had burned the midnight oil together in our efforts to get into vet school. And we’d both achieved our goal, with Suzanne going on to the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine in Indiana and me studying at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University. But over time, we lost touch. Demanding schedules have a way of making that happen. In fact, it wasn’t until three months earlier, back at the beginning of the summer, that I’d learned that fate—and a now-defunct marriage—had brought her to Long Island.
But Suzanne would undoubtedly want to bring along her current beau, another vet named Marcus Scruggs. And
was another story entirely. The fact that I’d been the one to play matchmaker didn’t make their blossoming love affair any easier to stomach—not when Marcus was about as appetizing as day-old sushi.
I was still ruminating over the pros and cons of spending an entire evening with Suzanne and a man who was very much like a congealing piece of raw eel when Betty interjected, “One of the tickets is for Nick, of course.”
Which presented another potential problem. I hoped he’d manage to pencil Betty’s opening night into his engagement book. I knew how hurt she would be if Nick wasn’t there to witness her moment in the spotlight. Then again, he was extremely fond of her. He was also as excited as I was that she’d decided to jump back into musical theater, her lifelong passion.
Nick will find time for Betty,
I told myself firmly.
Even if he can’t necessarily find time for me.
I hurried off, apologizing to Betty for not having more time to chat. But I didn’t want to keep Johnny Ray—or Andrew MacKinnon’s poor horse—waiting. I shepherded Max and Lou back inside the house and headed off to Heatherfield.
As I chugged along the driveway of the MacKinnon estate, I spotted Johnny Ray, waiting for me outside the stable. He was leaning against the wall in a pose that I suspected had been inspired by James Dean. As if that weren’t bad enough, he was playing out the part further by wearing scruffy jeans and a white T-shirt that looked as if they’d been supplied by the Costume Department. Of course, the deep grooves in his leathery face advertised the fact that he had two or even three decades on the actor.
Johnny Ray had adopted one more James Dean affectation: sucking on his usual cigarette. As I headed toward him, lugging a heavy bag, he took one last drag, then tossed the butt onto the ground and snuffed it out with the sole of his boot.
“You’re late,” he greeted me gruffly.
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. I was certain I hadn’t committed to arriving at a specific time. I knew better than that, even at 7:01 A.M. Between traffic, road-work, and a bunch of other unpredictable factors, driving times on Long Island are always tough to estimate.
“Anyways, you’re here now,” Johnny Ray mumbled. He turned his back on me and went inside the barn. I took that as an invitation to follow.
“This here’s Molly,” he continued, indicating the black mare in the corner stall. Gesturing toward the water bucket hanging from the side of her stall, he added, “It’s been cool at night lately, so she hasn’t been drinking much. You know how horses are. If it isn’t hot, it doesn’t always occur to them to drink. Anyways, yesterday I noticed she was looking kinda dull. She was unusually quiet and she kept her head down . . . she just didn’t look right. In the late afternoon, maybe around four, she starts lyin’ down in her stall—and Molly’s one of them horses that never lies down. She kept looking at her flanks, and she started rolling around a bit.” He shrugged. “The way I figure, since I know she ain’t pregnant, it all probably adds up to an impaction.”
“She hasn’t passed any manure?” I asked.
“And she doesn’t have any appetite?”
His mouth twisted into a sneer. “This morning, you told me to hold back on feed.”
“I meant before that,” I explained patiently.
He thought for a few seconds. “I guess I’d have to say she didn’t have no appetite.”
I just nodded, resisting the urge to cast him a look of total exasperation. Instead, I set down my bag. “I’ll need some help stabilizing this horse.”
I expected Johnny Ray to lend a hand. Instead, he yelled, “Hey, Hector! Get your ass over here.”
Muttering to himself, he added, “Damn spics. Lazy as all get-out. Half the time, when he’s supposed to bring the horses back in, I find him—”
Just then, a stocky young man with straight black hair who I assumed was Hector popped his head out of the tack room. As a newcomer, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt—especially since I didn’t consider Johnny Ray the most reliable character witness.
Smiling, I said, “Hello, Hector. I’m Dr. Popper. I could use some help subduing Molly while I examine her. Do you have a twitch we could use?”
He nodded and promptly retrieved one from the tack room. Fully cooperative, as far as I could tell. A twitch is basically a wooden stick with a loop of string at one end. Wrapping the loop around the horse’s top lip has a tranquilizing effect, making it a really valuable way of maintaining control of the animal when you’re doing something she might not be crazy about.
Once the young groom had applied the twitch, I went to work. I started by taking Molly’s temperature with a rectal thermometer. It was slightly high, 101.5 degrees. When I listened to her heart, her pulse was 48, also somewhat elevated.
“Okay, Molly,” I said to the mare in a gentle voice as I pulled on a plastic rectal sleeve. “I’m going to examine you now to see if we can figure out what’s going on.”
She just looked at me with woeful eyes.
I smeared on some lubrication jelly, pulled Molly’s tail out of the way, and inserted my gloved hand. Sure enough, I felt a large mass of hard fecal matter.
“You’re right, Johnny Ray,” I reported. “That was a good call. Molly’s got a significant impaction.”
He grunted, which I supposed was his way of begrudgingly acknowledging that maybe I knew what I was doing, after all.
“I’m going to tube it with mineral oil and warm water,” I told him. “First, I’ll give her a little painkiller, just to keep her from experiencing any more discomfort.” I injected the mare in the neck, then patted her and spoke to her soothingly while I waited for it to take effect.
She seemed to be fairly relaxed. Even so, I wasn’t surprised that she jerked when I started to pass the stomach tube through her nose. Fortunately, Hector had anticipated her reaction and he tightened the twitch.
“It’s okay, Molly,” I reassured her. “Nobody’s going to hurt you. Just take it easy, girl.”
When I’d finished the procedure and removed the tube, Hector loosened the twitch and released her. The mare shuddered, shook her head, and let out a whinny—probably because she was relieved it was over. I turned to Johnny Ray.
“She’s doing fine,” I told him. “You’ll get a setback of one or two days while we wait for this impaction to break up. Keep her muzzled for the next twelve hours, then limit her feed but give her free-choice water. She can go back to a small amount of wet hay after the impaction has passed. Call me if there’s a problem. In fact, call me in the morning anyway, just to let me know how everything is going.”
“Sure, Doc,” Johnny Ray mumbled. “How about exercise?”
“It’s okay to exercise her. And she should be up to playing again in about five days.”