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Authors: Gerald Hammond

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BOOK: The Unkindest Cut
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Jane made the sound that is usually reproduced as ‘Huh!'. She wrinkled her nose. ‘Money tomorrow is never the problem. Money today tends to be in short supply. Hence the expression
“Tomorrow never comes”.'

‘True,' Jolene said. ‘Unless you've been dreading it.'

Jane's next appointment, her last as a spinster, was one that she had been dreading and it brushed the smile from her face. It was her sad task to put down an old man's friend, the very old dog who had been his companion for twenty-three years but had now reached the end of the road. She filled the hypodermic syringe with the sleeping draught that she used for the purpose and put on the stethoscope. While the owner held the dog's head and whispered words of comfort she pressed the plunger until the old heart stopped its feeble beating. The old man was in tears. She gave him a comforting hug. ‘Anyone who doesn't feel bad at such a time,' she said, ‘shouldn't be allowed to keep an animal.' Her own voice was husky but she managed to hold back her tears until the old man was safely on his solitary way.

Despite her words, tomorrow did come: Jane's wedding day and the craziest day of her life. Pandering to the superstition that the groom must never see the bride until they are at the altar, or the registrar's desk, Roland had slept in a spare room and gone out early, intending to don his wedding finery at a friend's house. Jane had scorned the need for a bridesmaid to help her dress and she had allowed an unnecessarily generous margin for getting into an unfamiliar wedding dress, so she was waiting in the hall at Whinmount, nostalgically enjoying the many skilled examples of GG's photographic work that hung on the walls, when the bridal car arrived with Alistair looking very smart at the wheel and the white silk ribbons glowing in the sunshine.

Up to that point the day had gone like clockwork. It was about to go mad. A glance at her watch (the bride's present from the groom) assured her that it was not quite the time for her phone calls to be diverted to another vet twenty miles away, so she was carrying her mobile phone, charged and switched on. She was just getting into the car when it sounded its jingle.

‘Injured puppy,' said a voice that she did not recognize. ‘It's spouting blood. I'm taking it to your surgery.' The call was cut off. She keyed 1471 but the caller had withheld his number – presumably his phone was kept in that mode.

Jane looked at her watch again. The dilemma seemed to be ripping her mind apart. This was her big moment of her big day. She had wished that GG could have been there to accompany her up the aisle. She wished that Roland was beside her to tell her what to do. But she could not possibly leave a puppy to bleed to death. She would just have time, and in the surgery, if there was a reasonable chance of saving the pup, she could change into the overall that hung in the back room and still get to Kempfield, not more than slightly behind time. It was, after all, the bride's privilege to be late. She grabbed up the surgery keys and seated herself in the back of the big car. ‘Take me first to my surgery in the Square,' she told Alistair.

Alistair looked slightly shocked at the unconventional start to a bride's big event, but the authority in Jane's voice, and the fact that she was a paying customer, convinced him to follow her instructions.

As the limo moved off, Jane's phone rang again. This time she knew the voice, which belonged to Lucas Fraine, the Kempfield manager, who was in charge of the organization. Usually blessed with the calm of a traffic policeman she could detect traces of panic in his voice. ‘I don't know what you put in that champagne, but we went to open the first churn,' he said, ‘just to check that it really had fermented,' – in other words to start the drinking – ‘and when we cut the wires – whoosh! – the top blew off, the lid punched a hole in the ceiling tiles and nearly brained John Staples coming down again and there's wine all over the floor and—'

‘You were supposed to wait until I was there,' Jane said through gritted teeth. ‘I was going to borrow the tarpaulin that we scrubbed up for covering dinghies and use it the way a waiter uses a napkin but on a much bigger scale. We scrubbed it specially. Just do the best you can, hang on and I'll get there as soon as possible. I have an emergency here. Apologize for me.' The call finished.

Jane suddenly realized that they were already entering the Square. A young man was lingering outside her surgery, nursing a wrapped bundle. Otherwise, fortunately, the Square was empty.

‘Drop me at the surgery,' she said, ‘and then wait in the lane behind the shops. You've got your mobile and it's still on the same number? I'll call you when I'm ready.' She had no wish to attract a crowd.

Alistair nodded his assent to her in the mirror and drove off once Jane had manoeuvred herself and the rather cumbersome wedding dress out of the car. She walked over to the surgery door expectantly.

The young man would still have been in his late teens. Jane remembered seeing him around the town. He was usually smart and clean but just now he was badly bloodstained and obviously very upset. A thin wailing came from inside the bundle. ‘I think it was hit by a car,' he said. ‘I found it at the roadside and I couldn't think what to do except bring it to the vet.'

‘I understand.'

‘I forgot you're getting married today. My mum's at your wedding. I'm so sorry if I've messed it up for you.' The boy was in danger of becoming tearful.

‘It's all right,' Jane said, unlocking the surgery door. ‘I told you I understood and I do. You couldn't have done anything else. I couldn't pass by an injured pup myself. Bring it inside.'

She led the way and cleared a space on the counter. ‘Unwrap it for me.' She stood, as she thought, well back.

The pup was wrapped in an old mackintosh. At the first turn of the unwrapping Jane could see that the task was hopeless. ‘There's too much damage,' she said. ‘No animal, especially a young puppy, could survive that much surgery. Hold him like that. I'll have to put him to sleep.'

‘Oh dear! If you say so.' The young man swallowed loudly. ‘I've never seen a death.'

She produced the syringe that she had used to release the old dog the day before. It still held more than enough of the sleeping mixture for a small puppy. As she stooped over the pup there was a sudden spurt of blood and the wailing increased. Flustered, she slipped in the needle and gave the merciful dose. The sound died. The pup stretched, shivered and was still.

‘It was kindest that way,' Jane said. She looked down at herself. She took animal suffering very seriously and in the stress she had forgotten to change or cover the wedding dress. ‘Oh my God, look at me!' The once exquisite ivory lace dress was now peppered with spots of blood which were rapidly spreading along the tiny threads of the dress as the blood was absorbed into the material. A bloody map of veins had now printed itself across the front of the dress. It was ruined.

‘Well, I'm sorry,' said the youth, rather petulantly this time, ‘but it wasn't my fault.'

‘Never mind whose fault,' Jane said. ‘Do you have any money on you?'

‘Not a lot.'

‘Dash over to the grocer's and get me some salt. Very, very quickly.'

He scampered off outside. Jane could hear his trainers scraping and skidding on the gravel of her small courtyard as he raced out into the Square and over the crossing to the shop on the other side of the road.

Seconds later his figure was replaced by the shadow of another, this one equally slim and in the youthful uniform of jeans and a T-shirt. However, it was soon apparent that this was not the boy returning from his emergency errand, but another person, this one wearing a woollen hat in the colours of the local football team, pulled down over its face; the eyeholes had been cut and neatly hemmed. As the figure loomed closer, Jane could now see it through the glass of her surgery door and noticed with a shock that the person was carrying a kitchen knife, large and sharp-looking. Before Jane had time to react, the person was inside her surgery, the door shut behind them and the latch was dropped. The person then came forward, keeping the knife pointed at Jane's throat. She backed against the counter, trying to edge away from the threat without turning her back on him. There was no way she could get past him to the door to make her escape, so the only action she could take was to try and melt into the background and hope the person would ignore her presence if she didn't draw attention to herself.

The intruder meanwhile produced a carrier bag and using the blade of the knife began to slide drugs off the shelves of the drug cabinet into it. With a sense of relief Jane realized that rape, or any other such nightmare, was not on the agenda.

‘Open the safe,' said the voice in a gritty whisper.

‘There isn't a safe,' Jane said in tones that had developed a wobble.

The statement was almost true. Among the shopkeepers of Newton Lauder a sort of General Post was quite usual. The surgery had been built as a small shop for a jeweller who had later, as business grew, moved to where Keith Calder and his partner now worked, and then moved again into still larger premises further along the Square. The first occupant, fearing robbery, had caused a box of heavy steel with a slot in the lid to be built beneath the counter and bolted into place. Any takings above the float needed for making change went through the slot and the key was kept at the bank next door but two. That was considered to have averted any danger of robbery for cash. The jeweller's stock, it was generally agreed, was rubbish anyway. Mr Hicks, the vet from whom Jane had bought the practice, had kept the box but replaced the key lock with a digital combination lock. Jane had continued the same system but this was the first robbery to be attempted. There would be little cash inside; she had banked it the previous afternoon. Most of the few accounts since then had been settled by credit card or cheque, but a stubborn part of her mind hated to think of the system failing after so many years.

‘Steel box,' ground out the whisperer. ‘Open it.' Jane had backed up against the counter. The knife had come so close to her throat that she could read the maker's name.

Jane's mind began to work with almost its normal fluency. ‘You'll have to key in four-three-seven-two-six,' she said.

The intruder's reaction was predictable. If the man went round the counter, leaving Jane free in the shop, she would be able to unlatch the door and bolt for it. The intruder instead pushed her ahead round the counter. Then, rather than making her open the box, the burglar stooped to the front of the steel box and as he did so a wide gap opened between the intruder's jeans and T-shirt. Jane reached under the counter and blindly searched along the shelf, trying not to panic, until her hand clasped on to what she'd been looking for and, as she brought her hand slowly back out from under the counter, in her fist she was tightly holding on to a syringe. With a savage swipe she stabbed the burglar somewhere in the vicinity of the left kidney.

Her intention of course had been to use the remainder of the sleeping draught to lay him out. If the amount remaining in the syringe was insufficient to knock him out it would surely have stupefied the intruder enough to allow Jane to make her escape. It was only a second or two later that she realized that she had got hold of the wrong syringe. She dropped it back on to the shelf in disgust.

The burglar froze in the act of stuffing some untidy paper into his pocket. In a slightly more natural but still disguised voice the intruder squawked loudly, then reverted to the hoarse whisper. ‘What you done to me?'

Jane pulled herself together. ‘I've just microchipped you,' she said bravely. There was a momentary silence broken only when somebody tried the door and, on finding it locked, pushed a small packet of salt through the letter box. Footsteps receded. Silence would only leave the intruder free to think thoughts that Jane would prefer to let die. She picked up the packaging of the syringe from the shelf below the counter. ‘If you really want to know, I can even tell you your number.'

The whisper rose in panic. ‘Don't be funny. Take the microchip out of me. Quickly, or I'll slice your face off.'

She was in no doubt that the intruder had begun to lose control. Strangely, to be the calmer of the two steadied her nerves. ‘I can't,' she said, improvising wildly. ‘Nobody could. It's inside one of your kidneys. If it's taken out you'll be on dialysis for the rest of your life, so if you harm me you're already carrying the proof of your guilt.'

The burglar made a half-hearted slash in the direction of Jane's head. She ducked back and the knife barely missed her scalp. A few strands of dark chestnut hair drifted down. Now the intruder turned and fumbled at the door. It swung open and then slammed shut after the figure left and she heard footsteps scampering away. He had gone; her ordeal was over. Jane was aware how lucky she'd been to have barely had anything stolen aside from some drugs and a small amount of cash. A few moments later, once she was absolutely sure that the intruder had left, never to return, and once the adrenaline had stopped pumping through Jane's body, her emotions took over and she crumpled to the floor in relief and shock at how close she'd been to a far nastier, potentially more harmful experience.

Her mobile phone was already in her hand although she had no recollection of taking it out. She meant to call Alistair but first she called Kempfield. Lucas Fraine answered. She managed to compress the story into an amazing minimum of words and told him again to apologize to everyone and explain. But most importantly to let the groom know she had been delayed at the surgery, so that he didn't start to wonder what was keeping her or worse that he didn't start to consider the possibility that she could be having second thoughts. She promised that she would explain all later. Lucas sounded more upset than she did but she disconnected from his incoherent enquiries after her well-being.

BOOK: The Unkindest Cut
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