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Dr. Melanie Harding's hands jerked. Seated at her scuffed wooden desk, she nearly dropped the financial statement she'd been studyingthe first month's figures for her new veterinary practice.
Had that been a gunshot?
From down the hall, dogs started barkingone shrill and high, the others gruff and deep. The outside noise had clearly disturbed some of the patients kept overnight for observation. It hadn't been her imagination.
Not that she'd really thought so.
She glanced across her compact office toward the far window. The sound had come from that direction.
She couldn't see much outside from here. The moonlight, although bright, didn't do much to illuminate the yard or, beyond it, the thick woods bordering the town of Mary Glen.
Sure, this wasn't Beverly Hills, where Melanie had come from, but it was still a civilized area, despite its somewhat remote location on Maryland's Eastern Shore. People didn't just go around hunting here at nightdid they? Too dangerous to people, let alone any defenseless animals that might be their prey.
Melanie stood, shoving her fists into the pockets of the white lab coat she still wore, resisting the urge to race out and yell at whoever was shooting. Not that she was likely to see who it was. And if the fool was still there, any movement she might make could turn her into a target.
Besides, maybe it wasn't a hunter.
Maybe it was something else. Something more sinisterlike what had happened to her predecessor vet.
Despite her uneasiness, she felt compelled to glance out there. See if she could figure out what was going on.
Without being foolish, though. It was late, after ten o'clock, and except for her hospitalized patients she was alone here. She crossed to the open office door and flicked the switch on the beige wall beside it, turning off the overhead light. That way, she wouldn't be backlighted as she stood by the window.
She edged toward the glass, stood cautiously sideways behind its frame, and looked out.
The area behind her clinic was fenced in, a place where dogs could be let out for exercise and evacuation. The surface was concretenot as comfortable on tender paws as grass, but easier to keep clean.
The enclosure was empty now, illuminated by a gorgeous full moon that hung high in the black sky, its light obscuring any stars that might otherwise be visible.
Beyond the yard was the dense amalgamation of poplars, oaks, dogwoods and other trees that composed the local woodlandsbeautiful in daylight, especially now, in springtime, as some of them blossomed but darkly ominous at night. Melanie could make out the swaying of branches in the light breezelike arms waving her awaybut little else in that direction.
She stood still for a minute, scanning all she could see, but everything looked fine back there. Normal.
Peaceful. As if there had never been any gunshot.
Even the dogs down the hall had stopped barking.
Sighing, Melanie shook her head. Her long, deep brown hair was caught up in a clip at the nape of her neck, as it always was when she worked. It had been a long, tiring day. But enjoyable. She'd stayed later than usual to check over a litter of puppies that were born today at their homesweet, tiny Yorkies that their owner had brought in with the mama dog for reassurance that all was well. Melanie had sent them back home with smiles and instructions.
Only then had she been able to get to the paperwork. She hadn't intended to remain this late. And now she had been interrupted.
She wouldn't convince herself that the sound hadn't occurred, but she was unlikely to learn its source. Maybe it had been a car backfiringdid they still do that? It wasn't necessarily as menacing as she had first imagined. No need to call the police and have them think she was some nervous newcomer, a city girl who imagined scary urban-type incidents here, in this pleasant country area.
Leaving the window, she grabbed her purse from a desk drawer and headed down the hall.
A soft light glowed in the infirmary. She stepped inside, and glanced from cage to cage to check on the occupants. The air smelled familiarly of antiseptic and the aroma of healing dogs.
"Hi, Rudy," she crooned to the Jack Russell terrier she had been treating for a leg injury he'd gotten on a mad dash through a neighbor's yard. "Was that you I heard barking? How are you feeling?" The small, wiry terrier stood on three legs, holding his left front paw up piteously as he wriggled for attention. A soft, flexible recovery collar was fitted over his head to prevent him from chewing at his injury. Melanie opened the front of his cage and extracted the active pup, hugging him tightly as she checked to ensure his dressing was intact.
Putting him back with more soothing words, she looked in on her other patients: a shepherd mix named Wrangler who'd had surgery for a hernia, a Great Dane named Diva from whom Melanie had extracted two tumors that fortunately looked benignalthough a lab report would confirm itand Sherman, a medium-sized dog of unknown heritage who was being boarded for a few days while his owners were out of town. She spoke cheerfully to each and gave them pats and hugs, not wanting anyone to feel slighted.
"Time for me to go home," she finally said, hanging her lab jacket on a hook near the door. "See you all in the morning."
She kept the light on low as she headed down the hall to the clinic's entrance. The reception area's mini-blinds were closed as usual at this late hour. She checked her purse to ensure she had the keys, then slowly opened the door. Not that she really expected to be shot at, but she still felt a little nervous after the earlier disruption.
The veterinary clinic was at the end of Choptank Lane, the last of several streets perpendicular to Mary Glen Road, the town's main thoroughfare. Melanie's house was next door. The two buildings were the only ones on this block, although there were a couple of antique shops on the next one, closer to the town's business district. Usually, the isolation was comforting to Melanie.
She made sure the clinic's door was locked behind her and stood listening for a moment. In the light from the moon and streetlamps, her gaze darted around the quiet dead-end street.
Darn, that noise had spooked her.
Assuring herself that everything seemed fine, she started down the sidewalk toward her house, her footsteps nearly silent in her athletic shoes. The spring air felt brisk on her face.
But was someone watching her? No, that had to be her imagination, sparked by nervousness. Still, she picked up her pace.
And stopped when she heard a soft sound behind her, like a dog's whimper.
Nervous or not, she turned back, hunting for the sound's source. An animal in trouble?
She spotted a furry heap in the opposite gutter, in shadows, not far from where the next block began. She hadn't noticed the animal at first while concentrating on the direction toward her home.
She hurried toward it as she heard the whimper again. She dropped on her knees beside the barely moving dog.
"What's wrong, fella?" she asked soothingly. The answer was obvious, thanks to the trail of dark, oozing liquid leading up to animal. Blood. As if he had dragged himself here and collapsed.
The dog lifted its head slightly. He lay on his side, panting.
"You poor thing. Hold on." Despite the faintness of the light, she scanned the dog with professional eyes.
The loud noise Had someone shot this dog? This grayish dog that dared to resemble a wolf.
Damn the legends around here! And damn the people who'd come seeking creatures that didn't exist except in their own perverted imaginations.
Could she lift him? She was strong, but this poor creature would be a deadweight.
"I'll be right back," she promised. She extracted keys from her purse as she ran back to the clinic. She fumbled as she opened the door, then sped down the hall to the storeroom where she kept large bags of food for pets with special needs.
She grabbed a metal cart used to transfer sacks from outside delivery points to the storage area and shoved it ahead of her. It rattled and creaked as she hurried back down the hall. The dogs in the infirmary renewed their clamorous barking.
Melanie hurried across the street and maneuvered the injured animal onto the cart's large lower shelf. Speed was important, but she didn't want to hurt the poor thing any more than necessary. She carefully pushed the cart around her driveway, rather than over the curb, up the walkway and over the stoop into the clinic.
She hustled the cart toward the operating room.
Once there, she had difficulty lifting the hurt dog onto the table but somehow managed it, even handling him gingerly, knowing that injured canines were apt to bite. She quickly sedated the creature, but not before it looked at hertrustingly, she thoughtwith unusual amber eyes.
"You'll be okay," she promised, hoping it was so.
Soon, the dog was asleep. He had no collar, no identification. No matter. She would help him, even if he had no owner to pay her fees.
Melanie wished this were daytime, when her technicians were available to help prepare the animal for surgery. But at this hour, in this emergency situation, she was on her own.
With an antiseptic wash, she cleansed the area where she thought the injury to be. Yes, there it wasjust behind his left shoulder. She used an electric razor to shave the bloody gray-black fur from around the skin to reveal a hole. A bullet hole. And no exit wound.
Quickly, carefully, she performed the required surgery. Not that she had ever removed a bullet before. But she had operated extensively on injured animals.
When she was finished, she sutured the incision and maneuvered the dog onto the sterile bedding she had placed in a stand-alone wire crate with an open top, preparing to watch him until he awakened.
She shook her head. "Lunatic," she said aloud accusingly, as if the guilty party could hear her. "Credulous, cruel fool."
Mary Glen was full of tourists these days, those enamored with local legends.
Using tweezers, Melanie held up the piece of metal she had removed from her patient.
She had no doubt what it was: a silver bullet.
He still watched from the woods, wishing he could draw closer, stare inside the lighted building. See what was happening inside.
But being seen, especially now, was a bad idea.
Had he acted in time? He had done his best, under extreme circumstances. Was it good enough?
This was a time he could do no more. And now he would have to wait.
Only in the morning would he learn if he had been successful.
If his friend would live.
Melanie stirred in her chair.
Chair? She must have fallen asleep somehow in the operating room. Slept sitting up, in the vinyl-upholstered metal seat she had dragged in so she could rest while observing her patient. No wonder she felt so stiff.
She opened her eyes. They felt gritty until they landed on the crate on the floor between the operating table and her. And then they widened easily as she smiled.
The faint light of dawn, creeping in the window across the room, illuminated the dog she had treated last night. He was sitting up on the bleached, sterile towels she had put inside the metal crate for his comfort. As with nearly all animals she operated on, she had attached a large post-surgical recovery collar around his neck, framing his face, so he could not chew on his sutures. If he left the wound alone, she would remove it.
He watched her with bright amber eyes. Intelligent eyes. He seemed to thank her.
She gave a quick shake of her head. No way was she going to buy into the absurd legends around here. The dog might be smartheck, she'd guess him to be a mix between a malamute and a German shepherd, both bright breeds. He was moderate sized. His multi-hued coat was mostly gray tipped in black, but was all white in some areas, others all black. He had a long, strong muzzle and erect ears. Did he resemble a wolf? Sure. But he wasn't one.
And even if he was a conglomeration of the smartest breeds of dogs, that didn't give him human intelligencelike a werewolf would supposedly have.
"Good morning, guy," she said to him. He immediately stood in the cage-like enclosure, his long, fluffy tail wagging. "How do you feel?" She didn't expect an answer, but she knelt on the clean, sunshine-yellow linoleum floor and examined the bandaged area near his left shoulder. Good thing the gun used to shoot him apparently hadn't been very powerful. Although he'd lost a lot of blood, not much damage had been done. The bullet had barely nicked his scapula without ricocheting, then lodged there.
Not enough to kill a strong, healthy dog, thank heavens. Was even a minor wound with a silver bullet supposed to be enough to slaughter a werewolf?
Maybe she'd need to read up on the lore, to maximize her effectiveness as a vet around here. Only so she'd be prepared for situations like this, of course.
In the meantime, she had to make a phone call. Probably should have made it last night.
"No such thing as werewolves, are there, boy?" she said, giving her patient a gentle hug without putting pressure on his wound. "But I wish you were able to talk, or at least communicate your name and where you came from. You appear well taken care ofnot starving, and though you look a little straggly now, I'd guess someone brushes your coat pretty often."
He made a small whining noise, as if trying to hold up his end of the conversation. Melanie grinned as she stood. "Even if I don't believe in werewolves, I sure do a lot of anthropomorphizing." The dog's head was cocked as if he tried to understand her. "Anthropomorphizing? That's ascribing human characteristics to animals. Like now. Understand?" The dog barked, and Melanie laughed. "Maybe you do understand." She glanced at her watch. "Know what? It's nearly six-thirty. Some of my staff will arrive soon, which is a good thing. Patients, too, and that's not so good when I haven't slept much. But I'll manage. Just need a cup of coffee to get me going."
Her patient stood up and wriggled in the crate.
"You're surely not suggesting you need coffee. Water, thoughI'll get you some. And you seem to be doing well enough to try a little food, too. I'll have one of the techs bring you some as soon as they arriveit'll help them get some antibiotics and painkiller down you. They can take the collar off for a while and see if you lick."