The killer took a final look around the townhouse. Empty vodka bottles in the garbage and lying on the carpet by the bed. Percocet, Oxycontin, and Ecstasy pills added near the prescription bottle of Vicodin on the bedside table. A broken vase still in the garbage. Keep it obvious and simple.
In the living room the extra wineglass had been removed, washed, dried, and put away behind the rest of the glassware. It would look like Claire Birnham had been drinking by herself before her suicide. The glazed stoneware lamps cast pools of light over the purple sofa and acid-yellow accent pillows. Decorated in modern clean lines, the living room shone with personality. On the walls hung her minimalist artwork. A pity, the killer thought. So talented. Did she understand what she had gotten herself into?
The suicide note would appear as soon as the computer screen on the desk refreshed but, taking no chances, the killer printed it. A scrawled signature completed the lie.
In the breakfast alcove Claire slumped in a chair, forehead on the kitchen tabletop, her dark curly hair cascading over the edge. She snored gently, full of booze and pills. By pretending to need advice, the killer had lulled her into letting down her guard. Once she swallowed the doctored cocktail the rest was easy. Now to get her into the car for her final curtain call.
As if sensing what was coming, the girl stirred for a moment, then sank back into oblivion.
The killer helped Claire stand and, supporting her around the waist, walked her through the back door into the garage. A silver Honda Civic was parked on one side of the two-car structure; the second bay set up as a work space, packed with art supplies and tools. As planned, the driver’s side door was open, making it easy to slide the victim into the front seat. Once there her body slumped back against the headrest. Perfect.
Reaching across the seat with a gloved hand, one turn of the key started the motor. A quick press of Claire’s fingers on the car key fob dangling from the dashboard finished the job. The other hand, the one with the bandage, draped over the steering wheel. Satisfied, the killer walked to the garage side door, brushing against a pegboard bristling with more tools and canvas stretchers. A thin leather leash hung next to a row of screwdrivers. A twist of the knob locked the door from the inside. Behind the townhouse a sidewalk led to a parking lot devoid of cameras. At three-thirty in the afternoon on Friday, it was deserted so no one saw anything. A fast left out of the parking lot, then a right put the truck onto a main road. With the townhome complex rapidly fading from view, a smile crossed the killer’s face.
A perfect murder. Wait.
Something was missing. That leash.
Where the hell was Claire’s nasty little dog? Where was Toto?
After kicking my cheating boyfriend to the curb I needed to find a job far far away from him.
Quickly. With $150,000 worth of student loans left to pay for my veterinary education, I couldn’t afford to be without an income. That’s how I ended up in the tiny town of Oak Falls, about two hours from New York City if you put the pedal to the metal, but light years away from the crowds. Hired as a relief vet while the practice owner, Doc Anderson, took an around- the-world cruise, I lived in an apartment attached to the office. At least it was a short commute.
Now, seven months of house calls later, I thought I had seen just about everything.
I was wrong.
Friday morning, my veterinary technician, Mari, and I piled into the office F-150 truck and drove to our first appointment of the day. Seventy-two Chestnut Lane turned out to be an older farmhouse-style home on an acre of land that bordered the state park. Mature elms created a canopy over the front walkway, lined by low-lying junipers and daylilies. A pretty setting, but we were there to take care of a sick pug whose owner had called for an early morning appointment.
An attractive young woman in her twenties with light brown hair and a gentle face opened the door. “Are you the vet?”
Nodding, I introduced myself. “Yes, I’m Dr. Kate Turner and this is my assistant, Mari.”
“Nancy Wagner. Come in.” She stepped aside. “Don’t let anyone out.”
Both Mari and I are masters at not letting dogs, cats, or any other type of pet escape through exits of any kind. Watching carefully, we snuck through the door, using our legs like goalies at a soccer game to block anyone trying to flee.
Nancy watched us close the door. Satisfied none of her pets had gotten out, she led us down a fairly narrow hallway.
Unfortunately our progress abruptly stopped when a large gray and white pot-bellied pig with a pink nose turned the corner, effectively throwing a block.
Could the sick pug we were supposed to be seeing actually be a sick pig? Had our receptionist Cindy made an interesting typing mistake?
“Is this the patient?” I asked.
“Yes. This is my Angel. He’s almost a year old and he’s got a terrible rash on his belly.”
Just because veterinarians treat all kinds of animals doesn’t mean we have every species’ medical problems right at our fingertips. Luckily, I knew quite a bit about pot-bellied pigs. During vet school several had come into the university’s small animal clinic with various problems. I’d also gone on farm calls to a pot-bellied pig breeder, and babysat one named Daisy for a friend for a month. Most of the pigs I’d handled were gentle and surprisingly smart.
“All right. Where can I examine him?”
“I guess we could use the living room.” Nancy made a kissing sound and the pig turned and trotted off behind her. My guess was he had the run of this part of the house.
Without much trouble Angel rolled over on his back and presented us his belly to scratch. A diffuse red rash spread across the pale, almost hairless skin on his abdomen and halfway up both sides. The lack of any raised diamond shaped lesions or pustules quickly ruled out some of the bad pig diseases—which left anything from fungal to contact dermatitis to a million other things. To be certain I took several skin scrapings which Angel seemed to enjoy.
“Is he healthy otherwise? How is his appetite?” “Perfectly normal.”
Maybe this was a husbandry problem, having to do with diet or his environment.
Mari, Nancy, and I sat on the wooden floor. Angel loved having his belly rubbed and grunted with pleasure. I listened to his heart and lungs and continued my exam. “What are you feeding him?” Nancy pointed over to the kitchen counter. “He gets his pig chow plus vegetables and fruits, and some of what I eat every day. Then I let him root around in the yard outside.”
Since pigs are omnivores, which means they eat everything, it sounded like a fairly balanced diet. Except for the rash he looked like a healthy piggy. Digging a little deeper I questioned her further. “Did you spread any chemicals or fertilizers outside recently, or add any new plants or trees?”
“Absolutely not. I’m very careful because of all my pets.” Nancy sounded indignant.
“What about his sleeping pen?” Since our animal patients can’t talk to us, I found taking a detailed history is of huge importance. “Do you change the hay frequently? Is there any evidence of mouse or rat infiltration in his stall?” Skin lesions could be a result of moldy hay or damp unsanitary conditions.
His concerned owner continued to stroke Angel’s belly. “I’m sure everything is fine. I don’t have any skin problems.”
Not sure if she understood I tried to reassured her. “From a preliminary look, I don’t think this is contagious to people, but I’m curious if it has something to do with where he sleeps. Again she looked up at me, eyes wide. “He sleeps with me.”
For a moment I thought she sometimes camped in the backyard.
Mari subtly nudged me with her elbow.
I persisted. “Where exactly does Angel sleep at night?”
“In bed. With me,” Nancy said in a matter-of-fact voice, as though everyone sleeps with their pig.
That’s when a rooster walked into the room. Brightly feathered, brown and black with a red comb, he strutted past us, barely glancing at the pig on the floor. “Hi, Tommy,” Nancy said to the chicken.
Mari poked me again and whispered, “That’s odd.”
I was there to figure out what was wrong with Angel, not the owner, so continued. “Does he sleep on top of the bed?”
“No. Under the sheets. He gets cold at night.” she explained, “Besides, he likes to cuddle.”
Picturing her spooning with her pig seemed all wrong. I kept going.
“Have you changed your detergent or fabric softener?” Since pigs have sensitive skin I went with one of the most common causes of rashes—contact dermatitis.
Nancy frowned and pursed her lips. “Oh my gosh. I changed my fabric softener to Lavender Fields right around the time I noticed the rash. Do you think that might be it?”
“It certainly could be a cause. Would you be able to wash him with a hypoallergenic shampoo?”
“Sure, Angel likes taking showers with me.”
Of course he did. Another place I didn’t want to go. “Great. Mari will get the pet shampoo for you. Follow the directions and wash all the linen and whatever else he comes in contact with in hot water. Use your regular detergent but skip the fabric softener. If that’s the cause of his skin condition you should see a difference in about ten days. Meanwhile, we’ll call you with the results of our tests. There may be some other type of diagnostics to run, depending on how he responds.”
Angel rolled over, then pulled himself up onto his relatively slender feet. I noticed a large doggy door leading out into the backyard. As we watched, the pig aimed his snout into the door flap, pushed it open, then squeezed through.
“Thanks so much, doctor,” Nancy said, relief in her voice. “I was worried it might be something serious.” She hesitated for a moment. “Do I have to wash Tommy, too?”
For a moment I was confused. “Who is Tommy?”
“My rooster.” She smiled a sweet smile. “He sleeps with me too.”
# # #
After saying goodbye and getting into the truck, Mari couldn’t hold it in. She laughed her butt off. What exactly was going on in that house? I wasn’t sure. Nancy appeared to be a normal person, but lonely. Maybe her surrogate animal family filled the gaps in her life. The animals were healthy and well looked after, so who was I to judge her? After all, I talked to my dog Buddy, and he often slept at the bottom of the bed. During thunderstorms I let him crawl under the blankets. Whatever gets you through the day. Still, I couldn’t imagine sleeping with sharp piggy hooves in the bed with me.
“Is there a Mr. Nancy in the picture?” I wondered, turning the corner onto Scenic Drive.
“No such luck.” Mari entered something into the laptop. “She confided in me that she doesn’t get that many second dates.”
I tried not to crack a smile. “Gee, I wonder why?”
An hour later we arrived back at the animal hospital and I immediately looked at the skin samples. Everything checked out fine, no nasty scabies or demodex mites, no yeast or any of the other common skin problems that might cause a rash. Knowing Nancy would be worried I called her back while writing up my records.
“Thanks, Dr. Kate. I’ll give you an update in two weeks. She took a moment, then continued, “Why don’t you check out my Facebook page and follow the link to our website and my blog?” Six o’clock rolled around before I had an opportunity to go into Doc’s office to check my email. For curiosity’s sake I looked up Nancy on Facebook.
To my surprise there were lots of postings on her page and a professional looking link to her website. When I clicked on it I got another surprise. Nancy wrote a blog about her pets and her life, a pretty popular blog, and now I was part of it.
Obviously taken from an overhead cam, the posted picture caught me rubbing Angel’s tummy. It was a toss-up who sported the bigger grin, me or the pig.