“Where’s the patient?”
The teenage boy with the buzz cut waved me toward the living room. A vacuum cleaner stood in the middle of the wall- to-wall beige carpet.
With over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in student loans for my veterinary degree, I couldn’t afford to be without an income. That’s how I found myself in upstate New York working for an animal hospital that made house calls. We did not service household appliances.
“Where?” I must have misunderstood.
“In there.” The boy nervously shifted back and forth and pointed to the machine. Why that note of anticipation in his voice? “Are you the vet?” A woman with frizzy auburn hair appeared behind me, wiping her hands on a striped dish towel. Two other children followed in her wake. She appeared frazzled and tired. “I’m Mary Ellis, and these are my youngest, Damian and Angela. You’ve already met Tommy.” The taciturn Tommy stared at his Reeboks.
“Hi, I’m Dr. Kate Turner, Oak Falls Veterinary Hospital.” “Oh, my gosh, I can’t look, I can’t look.” Angela, a small girl with bangs, squealed, and then tried to cover her eyes, ears, and mouth with her hands. She obviously loved the color pink because every piece of clothing, down to her sparkle socks and glitter sneakers, glowed with shades from rose to pale pink.
# # #
I felt a tug on my lab coat. “Dead, dead, dead!” shrieked a grubby toddler wearing only pull-ups and black cowboy boots, clutching a half-eaten strawberry Pop-Tart. His mouth and cheek were smeared with jam. “Dead, dead, dead,” he repeated like a mantra, then began galloping around the room. A fingerprint of sticky strawberry stained the bottom of my white lab coat.
“Tommy, what did you tell him? Quiet, Damian.” His mother sounded as though she repeated those words to him a hundred times a day.
Taking control of the situation, I tried to find out why they called me. “Mrs. Ellis, could you tell me what happened? My receptionist said there was some kind of accident.” Had the vacuum fallen on their pet?
She nodded. “Yes, an accident. Tommy was helping me vacuum, and the next thing we knew, Peanut had disappeared.” I looked at Tommy. He was about fifteen or sixteen. A sheepish grin flitted across his face before he returned to concentrating on his feet. Now all I needed to know was, who or what was Peanut? “Peanut is our hamster. We got him as a little baby,” Angela whispered from behind her pearl-pink fingernails.
“Dead, dead, dead,” Damian helpfully chimed in as he slowed to a trot, turned counter-clockwise, and started to gallop in the other direction.
“Do you think the centrifugal force from the vacuum exploded him into pieces?” Tommy sounded hopeful.
“Eeewwwww,” contributed Angela.
“Tommy, don’t gross your sister out.” A phone rang. Mary glanced at the screen of her smartphone then started to text.
“Okay, there’s only one way to find out.” I put down my leather veterinary bag and slipped on a pair of exam gloves. “Maybe the kids should leave the room?”
No one budged. Mary didn’t even look up.
“I’ll need a large garbage bag and some newspapers.” The family eyeballed me. Mary, still texting, headed for the kitchen. The kids stayed, not wanting to miss anything. Under their watchful eyes, I searched for my bandage scissors and gauze pads. Even Damian reined in his imaginary horse, raised the Pop-Tart in the air like a sword, and stood next to his brother. Gingerly, I unplugged the vacuum from the wall outlet.
Their mom returned clutching a stack of newspapers and some garbage bags. After handing them to me she called to her daughter. “Come here, Angie.” The girl ran over and pressed her face into Mary’s waist.
With newspapers covering the rug, I opened the red plastic latch securing the vacuum bag, then reached in and pulled it free. Using the blunt side of my scissors, I slowly cut along the top with my finger as a guide. I reached inside. Like a magi- cian, I pulled out a brown hamster covered in lint. The little guy’s eyes were closed tight, but on quick exam he seemed to be okay. I picked all the lint off his fur and stroked his head. Suddenly his eyes popped open, black and bright. He looked around and squeaked.
“Hooray,” the kids cheered.
Still holding the hamster in my hand, I glanced at Tommy. “Get Peanut’s cage and bring it here. He needs a little quiet time.” “Dead, dead, dead,” Damian called out gleefully, then, started to gallop again.
With Peanut safely stuffing his cheek pouches with food, I gathered the family together for a stern lecture on pocket pets and electrical appliances. It turned out Tommy wasn’t a bad kid, just careless. I reminded them about supplementing Peanut’s food with a hamster multivitamin, since hamsters, like people, don’t make their own vitamin C. After Mary settled her bill over the phone, we looked at Peanut’s habitat and I made some suggestions for improvements. The kids started talking about maybe getting a dog and Damian offered me the last bite of his squished Pop-Tart. A quick glance at my watch told me that I was already running late for my second appointment of the day. “Thanks so much, Dr. Kate.” Mary said taking the newspapers from my hand. “We’ll be much more careful with Peanut in the future. I promise.”
I followed her through the living room to the front door. “Make sure you observe him carefully the next few days and call me if there are any problems.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw her give me a speculative glance. Then she said, “Did anyone ever tell you that you look a little like Meryl Streep, except younger?”
Outside I gunned the office truck, set the GPS, and headed for my next appointment. As I drove along Hamilton Lane the skies darkened and rain began to fall. Spring in upstate New York could usher in sunny weather or buckets of rain. The windshield wipers barely kept up with the developing storm as lightning streaked above the trees, followed by booms of thunder. Fifteen minutes late stretched into a half hour as visibility worsened. Pooling water on the roads slowed everyone down. Finally, I turned into a long private driveway leading to an elegant brick mansion on five acres. Fat drops of rain pelted the windshield. Pulling my lab coat over my head, I jumped out of the truck and ran up the slippery front stairs to the front door. With twenty-seven dogs barking, rain blasting down—almost as loud—I stood drenched in the noisy downpour.
No, this wasn’t an episode of animal hoarders—in fact, just the opposite. The dogs inside are pampered and fussed over like royalty, which they are. Vivian and Thomas Langthorne raise and show champion-quality Cavalier King Charles spaniels and each one was barking like crazy. Thunder boomed again as I lifted the dog-shaped brass knocker and banged it hard against the black-lacquered front door. The open porch with its six marble columns didn’t do much to shelter me from the wind and rain. Between the storm and my veterinary technician having injured her knee, my whole day’s schedule was morphing into a disaster. I half expected to see Vivian Langthorne standing by the front door waiting for me, puffing a cigarette, and muttering to herself. At least that was the scenario two weeks ago during their last house call. She’d still been hopping mad at me for shaving the front leg of her champion stud dog, Lucky Eight’s King Charles Too.
“Dr. Turner. How can I show him like that?” she’d asked touching the small shave mark on his left front leg. I reminded her that Charles Too had been extremely ill with symptoms of acute pancreatitis. Without intravenous fluids and medications, the dog could have died.
“Humph,” had been her final word on the subject. Even in her eighties the tiny woman with wispy white hair and stern black eyes radiated that second-grade teacher authority. If she could have forced me into time-out, she would have.
I knocked on the door again and rang the doorbell. The buzzing sound was drowned out by the rainfall and roaring thunder above. My elderly clients probably couldn’t hear anything over the din. Getting no answer again, I called the office.
“Hey, Sandy, I’ve got a little problem here.”
“Running late again?” The raspy voice of Oak Falls Animal Hospital’s chief receptionist and office manager, Sandy Hendrik, was a product of unfiltered cigarettes and rumored shots of Jack Daniels.
“I’m at the Langthornes’ front door but no one is answering.
Are you sure the appointment was for ten this morning?”
A lull in the storm let me hear computer keys clicking. After a moment Sandy came back on the line. “The appointment calendar says ‘Langthorne recheck at ten.’ Wait there and I’ll call the numbers I have for them.”
While I waited, the rain began to let up. A small rivulet of water meandered along the side of the cobblestone driveway, heading down the hill toward Little Silver Creek. The weather in the Hudson Valley during early April often changes by the minute, as witnessed by a ray of sun piercing the clearing gray clouds. Restless, I tried the front door handle. The door slid open.
“I think they left the door open for me.”
“Nobody’s answering.” Sandy’s voice crackled on speakerphone. “This happened once before, I think, when they were at the back of the house by the kennels. I say go ahead in.”
“All right, but bail me out if they charge me with breaking-and-entering.” The phone abruptly cut out. I wondered if Sandy had headed outside for a quick cigarette break. Carefully I wiped both feet on the doormat, picked up my battered leather medical bag, and walked in.
An overpowering odor, much worse than usual, hit me in the face. Mixed with the animal stench, I recognized the metallic smell of blood and saw a bloody pawprint.
Alarmed, I called out, “Mr. and Mrs. Langthorne? Are you here?” A sea of little dogs yapped at my feet. No lights shone in the dim foyer. Dodging the spaniels I made my way into the formal living room.
It looked like a horror movie tea party. Vivian slumped in a brocade armchair, her skin bluish white. A large dark stain over her heart ruined the yellow cashmere sweater set she wore. Thomas had fallen against the side of his chair, his head at a terrible angle. An identical stain covered his polo shirt. I checked each for a pulse, although I was sure they were dead, then, called 9-1-1.
Three Cavalier King Charles spaniels barked and decided to chase each other past the tea table. A massive Georgian silver tray held little sandwiches now sprinkled with blood. A plate of scones sat next to the teapot, the paired blue-and-white porcelain sugar bowl and milk pitcher nearby. In the center, a Chinese dish held thin lemon slices arranged in a circle. I’d been their guest for a similar tea each time I’d come to their house. Proper etiquette demanded it. My eyes strayed back to Thomas and his dropped teacup staining the Oriental carpet. A gun lay near the broken cup.
What happened here? Was this a murder-suicide?
One of the spaniels jumped up on my leg, stared at me with liquid brown eyes, and whimpered. I bent down to pet it. Why were the dogs out? Normally when visitors came over the Langthornes kept the dogs in the kennels attached to the house. As I stood there more dogs poured into the living room. Were all twenty-seven dogs loose? When the emergency responders came, some of the frightened dogs might escape into the neighborhood. “Come here, babies,” I crooned, mimicking Vivian’s voice as best I could while trying to lead them into the kitchen. The bag of dog food and a box of treats on the countertop gave me an idea. Waving the treats in front of me, I led the dogs into the large office separated from the kitchen by glass-paned French doors. Like a canine pied piper I got the little dogs, eagerly anticipating food, to follow me. I dumped half a bag directly onto the wooden floor and watched as the stragglers ran over to join the crowd. After placing two giant bowls of water in the office, I closed the doors and walked outside to wait for the police. A profound sadness settled on my shoulders, weighing me down. What had happened in there?
Sirens wailed in the distance. Blue sky showed through the clouds signaling the end of the storm. The damp air, smelling of junipers and wet cedar chips, began to chase the smell of death away. I paced the porch, then called the office again.
“Oak Falls Animal Hospital,” Sandy answered through a run of coughs.
“Hey, it’s Kate again. Can you call my next appointments and tell them I might have to reschedule? There’s an emergency here.”
“What’s up? Having problems with Vivian?”
I stared out at the holly lining the walkway, spiky leaves glistening from the rain.
“Sandy, I found the Langthornes dead inside the house. I’m waiting for the police to arrive.”
Her stunned silence went on for almost twenty seconds, before I asked, “Are you okay?”
“Damn,” she grumbled. “You lost another client. Doc won’t be happy about this.” She hung up the phone.
Please let her be joking.
# # #
The house went from empty of humans to full in less than five minutes. As the only witness, I was told to wait inside. Once more I stood in the living room, but turned away from the bodies. The EMTs brushed past as they moved back and forth from their truck, filling out paperwork with no sense of urgency. Between the smell of death, the sounds of the dogs yipping and barking, and someone who unwrapped an Italian submarine sandwich in the corner, I needed fresh air.
“I’m going outside for a moment,” I told no one in particular. A clean breeze welcomed me when I opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch. I followed the columns along the side of the house, away from the trucks and the still-flashing lights. My lungs pulled in big gulps of pine-scented air, pushing away the odors that lingered on my skin like a thin layer of sweat. Now in the silence so many questions occurred to me. Why were the dogs in the house? I couldn’t imagine the Langthornes leaving all the dogs out, even during the heat of an argument. When the dogs came indoors they had to be segregated by gender, since only controlled mating was allowed. Sometimes it was difficult for owners to know if a female was about to go into heat. Male dogs had no such trouble.
Something else about finding the elderly couple was bothering me. That scene in the living room didn’t look like the scene of an argument. I’d witnessed fights between the Langthornes before. They followed a predictable pattern—verbal abuse escalating to the point at which Thomas went into his office and slammed the door. Vivian usually hurled one last insult before stalking off to her space in the front parlor. Then ten minutes later it was as if nothing had happened.
I gazed out at the manicured grounds—such a contrast to the tragedy inside. I remembered my last visit, Thomas barking orders from his office while Vivian tried to cajole him into doing what she wanted. A nagging thought about something being different in the house fluttered around at the periphery of my brain. What it was escaped me.
# # #
“Dr. Turner?” The officer had spotted me on the side of the house then came toward me. I could see big patches of gray under his dark brown eyes. “I’m Police Chief Robert Garcia. I believe you gave a statement to Sergeant Edwards?”
“Yes. He asked me to wait.” I’d never given a statement to the police before.
“We’re almost done here. If you don’t mind, I’d like to go back over the events with you.” He took a notebook out of his pocket and flipped a page before looking up at me. “I understand you had an appointment with the deceased couple.”
“Yes.” My hands started to shake. I jammed them into the pockets of my lab coat.
“Are you cold? We can do this inside.”
Just the suggestion made my skin jump. “No, I’m okay.
Delayed reaction, I think.”
“That’s very common,” he said, his voice softening. “Take your time.”
I leaned against the pillar at the corner of the porch. It felt good to have something solid across my back.
“Now,” he continued, “what time was your appointment?” “Ten o’clock, but it was closer to ten-thirty by the time I got here. I was running late this morning. Normally I work with a technician, but she called in sick today.” I stopped to take a breath. “When I got here no one answered the door. I called Sandy, the
office manager, to make sure I had the date and time right.” “Did you see anyone else around the property? Any cars?” “No. It was completely quiet except for the rain, the same as always.”
He looked up. “You’ve been here before?” His sleepy eyes woke up.
“Yes, several times. I saw the Langthornes about two weeks ago for a recheck on one of their dogs.”
“How did it go?”
Why did I think he wasn’t really interested in the dog’s health? “He did fine.”
The baleful eyes stared at me.
“There were a few bumps in the road, but everything got resolved.” I heard myself open Pandora’s box.
He was on it like a mouse on cheese. “What bumps in the road?”
I sighed. How to explain dog show people to people from the real world? “Well, they were a little upset with me.” Upset as in screaming and vowing to report me to the New York State Veterinary Medical Board. Not to mention threatening to take away my license to practice medicine.
He flipped his little notebook to a new page. “Why were they upset with you?”
“Their dog was dehydrated, so I put in an intravenous line for fluids and took bloods.”
He frowned, which pulled his two black eyebrows into one black line. “What’s the matter with that?”
“I shaved a patch of hair on Charles Too’s leg for the IV. Charles Too is the dog’s name.”
“I don’t understand.”
My hands popped out of my pockets like they had a life of their own. “Lucky Eight’s Charles Too is a retired grand champion Cavalier King Charles spaniel. The Langthornes’ kennel name is Lucky Eight. His name is a play on words.” That passes for humor on the dog show circuit.”
“What about the patch of hair?”
“I didn’t know they were going to Westminster this year.” The look of disbelief on his face intensified.
“I shaved off part of his coat.” My voice rose precipitously as I tried to explain. “It would have grown back by then, but they were worried it would look uneven, or come in a different color.” I hesitated.
“Today was a final recheck appointment. Plus they wanted me to take a look at one of the females they were trying to breed.” “I see.” Again, more notes in the notebook. While he wrote, he moved his head, which set his jowls swaying.
“Of course, I didn’t get a chance to examine him today, what with discovering the…ah…bodies. It was a murder-suicide, right?”
He cleared his throat and ignored my question. “Did you hear anyone in the house?”
“See anything suspicious?”
“No.” Again a memory of something unusual danced away in the back of my mind.
“Did you touch anything?”
I thought for a moment. “Obviously, the front door. Then I checked Vivian and Thomas to make sure they were…gone. That’s when I called 9-1-1.” I tried to remember the exact sequence of events. “Oh, I went into the kitchen to get some dog food and herded all the dogs into one room. They normally aren’t allowed to run around like this.”
“Was there some animosity between you and the Langthornes?”
“I think they were still…perturbed.” I watched him stop for a moment, continue to write, then, flip over to a new page.
“When we arrived, you were on the porch.”
“Yes. Once I had secured the dogs, I thought it best not to disturb anything else.”
“Now, the Langthornes knew you were coming here today.
“Correct. They scheduled the appointment with Sandy, our office manager. Someone from the office usually calls the day before to confirm.”
He closed the notebook and put it back into his pocket. “We’ll need a statement from her. What is the office number?” I gave it to him, but I had some questions of my own. “Chief Garcia, those dogs inside are technically my patients. Someone said Animal Control would hold them for the next of kin?” “That’s right, until legal ownership is determined.”
“Well, if it’s okay with you, I want to stay here and help secure all the dogs. The Langthornes loved their pets very much. They centered their lives around them, as far as I could tell. Honestly, I feel an obligation to them.”
“Fine, just stay out of everyone’s way.” With a quick gesture he guided me back inside.
After contacting Animal Control I went into the office with the dogs, determined to calm them down a bit and take a quick head count. That proved impossible; I’d have to wait until Animal Control got here to help. On the other side of the French doors cameras flashed. Turning away I looked back at the office. Two walls lined in bookshelves; Thomas Langthorne’s huge mahogany desk took up the rest of the space. I noticed it was cluttered with paperwork, but a big manila envelope marked “Last Will and Testament” was positioned against his desk lamp—obviously placed there for everyone to see. An appointment book open to a weekly schedule lay by the phone. Sure enough, I saw a note in his spidery handwriting that read “vet at ten” written on today’s date. Being careful not to touch anything, I noticed the edge of a scratch pad poking out from under a dog magazine. With a pencil I lifted the magazine to reveal a yellow-lined notebook filled with doodles. Mixed in with the dollar signs, cartoon figures, and sketches of airplanes were several phone numbers with an unfamiliar area code.
A knock on the door started all the dogs barking. One of the officers gestured for me to join her. Careful to not let any dogs out, I squeezed through the office French doors.
“We’d like you to wait outside for Animal Control,” the officer said politely, then pointed me toward the front door. When I gazed back over my shoulder I saw her standing guard, arms crossed over her chest, her eyes still following me.
It took over two hours for the Animal Control Unit to arrive. After the senior officer coordinated with the police, we organized into three teams. I checked each dog before handing it over to be walked outside to the van. I didn’t like the whole thing, but the dogs enjoyed the new experience, especially since they were traveling with their doggy relatives. The workers assured me that as soon as the custody details were worked out, the dogs would be released. When we got the clearance to leave, I waited in my truck, head pounding, hands on the wheel, until they were safely on their way.
Raindrops from the storm had made splatter patterns on my windshield. The engine whined before it turned over on the second try. Exhaustion and hunger weighed me down, made my brain fuzzy. Then I realized with a start what was wrong.
I’d put my hands on each and every dog in the house. Not one of them had a shave mark on its leg.
Grand Champion Charles Too was missing.
By the time I got back to the office it was eight-thirty, my twelve-hour day finally over. Sandy was long gone, but she’d printed out tomorrow’s list of appointments and stuck it on the cork message board.
Because I’d learned that a complete search of the Langthornes’ house by the Animal Control team under the supervision of the police had produced no more pets, I left a message for Animal Control to please check all the dogs carefully and call back. No one but me seemed concerned. There were twenty-seven dogs living in the house and twenty-seven were recovered. Obviously, they thought I’d made a mistake.
After a long shower and a quick frozen dinner, I fell into bed. A glass of white wine helped convince me I had probably overlooked Charles Too in the bedlam. Tomorrow was Saturday with appointments scheduled until noon. I needed my sleep.
My last thoughts revolved around Thomas and Vivian Langthorne. I tried not to think of that final tea party, tried to think of them in happier times. I hadn’t known them that well or that long—just a few months. Now I would never forget them.