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"A bird in the hand makes a bit of a mess."—Anonymous Birdcatcher
If I hadn't forgotten to seal up the package of English muffins, if I hadn't instantly become addicted to The Crocodile Hunter the minute it came on the air, if two of the beasts in my possession hadn't developed a Batman-and-Robin complex, that bleak Tuesday in November would have probably turned out to be just another day.
I had a sense it wasn't off to a good start as soon as I opened my eyes and saw my alarm clock. For normal people, 5:45 is their cue to roll over and go back to sleep.
But that's for normal people. For me, those numbers got the same reaction as if somebody casually mentioned they'd put a boa constrictor in my bed.
I let out a cry that sounded like something a terrified animal would make. Then I leaped out of bed and immediately began hopping around the house, trying to keep warm. Chilly mornings are one of the few negatives of living in a stone cottage built back when Andrew Jackson was president. Meanwhile, I struggled to figure out how I would explain to the folks at Atherton Farm why I was so late for my six a.m. appointment to treat one of their horses for what I suspected would be a serious throat condition called strangles.
My two trusty sidekicks, Lou and Max, were already in high gear. Both thought all this shrieking and leaping was a game. Of course, both think just about everything is a game. You'd think that a three-year-old, one-eyed Dalmatian and a two-year-old Westie with a stub for a tail would have developed some sense along the way. But you'd be wrong.
Their reaction was to do some leaping and shrieking of their own, which prompted my parrot, Prometheus, to put in his two cents. From the living room, he squawked, "Crikey! Crikey! Awk! Crikey!" doing a perfect imitation of the great Croc Hunter himself. If there was anything more annoying than two dogs who acted as if they'd just overdosed at the espresso machine, it was a Blue and Gold Macaw who affected an Australian accent.
"Give me a break, guys," I pleaded. They were the first real words I'd uttered that frigid morning, one lit by a sun that looked as if it were about as awake as I was.
Predictably, they didn't listen. Prometheus moved on to some of his other favorite phrases. "News at eleven! Awk! News at eleven!"
Meanwhile, Max and Lou continued their circus routine, tumbling over each other like, well, like a couple of puppies as they followed me into the kitchen.
As usual, Catherine the Great lay draped across the rag rug in front of the sink, looking like a siren from the silent movies, even with her nicked ear. The cloud of silky gray cat fur glared at us in a way that revealed exactly what she was thinking. I had to agree. Yes, it would make much more sense if we all just turned around and headed back to bed.
I was about to explain that duty called, but I needed coffee before I could attempt to reason with a cat who knew she was superior. So I turned to the coffeepot.
"Damn," I muttered.
That's where my Crocodile Hunter addiction caught up with me. I should have resisted the urge to stay up much too late, watching Steve Irwin play Twister with a seven-foot gator. That way, I would have gotten enough sleep. I would also have remembered to set up the coffee.
Okay, Plan B, I thought, trying to remain calm. The two lords-a-leaping at my feet didn't exactly help me focus. I groped for the tea. As long as I had something caffeinated and an English muffin, my usual way of fueling up just enough to get me out the door . . . And that was when I noticed that the sole surviving muffin was exposed to the air, thanks to an insufficiently zipped Ziploc bag. I didn't even have to touch it to know that during the night the powerful forces of nature had transformed it into a hockey puck.
With no caffeine and no edible English muffin, I had no choice but to turn to Plan C: grabbing breakfast in the outside world.
I tore back into the bedroom and threw on my version of business dress: black jeans, a forest green polo shirt embroidered with "Jessica Popper, D.V.M.," a zippered polyester fleece jacket, and a pair of chukka boots from L.L. Bean. I fastened a ponytail band around my hair, once blond but ever since I'd turned thirty much closer to dirty blond.
On my way out of the bedroom, I glanced into a mirror. A tired-looking woman stared back at me through watery green eyes.
"You go, girl," I sighed.
Max and Lou were already hanging out near the back door. They liked being part of the mobile veterinary services business even more than I did. They got to travel all around Long Island, meet interesting animals and enjoy a fascinating range of smells. And all it took to motivate them were the magic words, "Want to go for a ride?" Who says it's hard to get good help?
As I raced along the quarter-mile driveway that connects my tiny cottage with Minnesauke Lane, I could practically taste Dairy Delight's 99-cent breakfast. A cup of scalding coffee, a toasted muffin dripping with butter . . . and thanks to drive-through, it was all mine without even leaving the driver's seat. It doesn't take much to make me happy.
Of course, the downside was that the detour took me out of the way, making me even later. Fortunately, I knew a short cut to Atherton Farm that led to the back entrance to their 44 acres. The back road to the barn was more like a dirt path that had been cut into the field, the result of other drivers who, like me, were too lazy or too far behind schedule to drive around to the real entrance.
I gritted my teeth as I bumped along, praying my suspension was faring better than my internal organs. I was just considering turning around and opting for the easier, more sensible route when my van abruptly lurched sideways and stopped dead.
"Great," I told Max and Lou, who'd both been thrown about three feet but didn't seem the least bit perturbed. "Now we're stuck."
As I swung open the door to check the damage, Max and Lou jumped past me. I would have anticipated their escape if I hadn't been so distracted by my traumatized van.
I now had two problems to deal with: my unhappy vehicle and my AWOL animals.
"Max! Lou!" I cried, watching them take off across the field, totally crazed over their newfound freedom. Not surprisingly, they ignored me.
So I turned to the more immediate problem. I checked out my custom-built vehicle, a 26-foot white van with blue letters stenciled on the door:
Reigning cats & dogs
Mobile Veterinary Services
Large and Small Animal
The good news was that the tires were all intact. The bad news was that one of them had just dropped into a hole at least a foot deep.
But it wasn't that bad. I figured I could dig out the front of the hole, creating a slope instead of a cliff, and drive the van out.
I was about to start excavating when hysterical barking cut through the silence. I spun around, dropping the shovel.
I know my dogs' barks the way a mother knows her baby's cry. What sounded like nothing but noise to the untrained ear in fact clearly communicated hunger, a need for attention, or a diaper that needed changing. Or danger.
Something was very wrong. The seriousness of Max's and Lou's tone instantly got my adrenaline going.
I spotted them a few hundred yards away. Both stood near a clump of trees at the edge of the field where a dense wooded area began. I could see from their stances that every one of their muscles was tense.
I jogged across the field, the soles of my boots occasionally slipping against the dirt, still wet from the drenching rain we'd had two nights earlier. I was panting when I reached the two dogs and the oddly shaped mound that had caught their interest.
The first thing I saw that was out of the ordinary was a pair of shoes that appeared to have been abandoned in the woods. I didn't know much about men's shoes, especially those fancy wing-tipped jobbies favored by conservatively dressed businessmen. But from what I could tell, this was one expensive pair. As my eyes traveled beyond them, I made out a matching set of legs, two inert protrusions that could have passed for logs if it hadn't been for the high-quality leather at one end.
The fact that I'd stumbled across a partially buried body didn't hit me for a few seconds.
Once it did, my response was to do what any other self-respecting professional woman who had spent four years in college and four years in veterinary school, learning to cope with life and death on a daily basis, would have done.
Max and Lou instantly stopped barking, no doubt impressed that the leader of their pack was capable of making a sound even more piercing than what they were capable of. Whether I'd simply stunned them or won a new level of respect, I didn't know. And I didn't care.
At the moment, I was too busy struggling to remember what a rational person was supposed to do at a moment like this.
Cell phone. Somehow, the thought cut through my panic.
"Stay!" I told Max and Lou, wanting to mark the precise location of the wing-tipped shoes and the human body that was attached to them.
For once, they actually obeyed. I dashed back to the van, praying I'd taken better care of my Nokia than I had my English muffins. I grabbed it off the driver's seat, yelped with relief when I saw it was still half-charged and dialed 911.
"Officer Johnston, Eighth Precinct. Where's the emergency?"
"Atherton Farm. Brewster's Neck, off Green Fields Road." The shakiness in my voice surprised me. "This is Dr. Jessica Popper. I'm a veterinarian. I came out here on a call and found a dead man in the woods."
"How do you know the person is dead?"
"Not moving, lying half buried in the woods, skin--what I can see of it--ghostly white . . ." Not exactly a pretty sight, I was tempted to add, but didn't.
"I'll send an ambulance," Officer Johnston replied, unperturbed. "Tell me exactly where you are."
I gave directions, then ended the call. With the police on the way, I knew I'd done my job. I made a quick call to Skip, the manager of Atherton Farm, explaining that I'd been delayed but would get to the barn as soon as I could. The obvious next step would have been to put the phone away, call my dogs back into the van and wait for help to arrive.
Instead, I stared at the ditch my tire was stuck in and then back at the phone in my hand, thinking. Debating, really. Should I or shouldn't I? Dialing those seven digits, punching in that familiar number that I'd called hundreds of times before, would have been so easy. And not at all questionable, under the circumstances.
Except that even I didn't know my real motivation for calling Nick Burby. Did I really need his help? Or was I merely using the ghastly thing that had just happened as an excuse?
I was about to put my cell phone away when I heard Lou's deep, chesty bark. I snapped my head around and saw him stationed a few feet away from the corpse, glancing down at something in the leaves and yelling his head off. Meanwhile, Max, the digger in the family, was doing his terrier thing. He was working his strong white paws like there was no tomorrow, the dirt flying wildly as he doggedly went after something buried near the body.
"No!" I shouted, moving toward them, worried about what he'd find.
Max shoved his nose into the earth. When he came up, the flash of bright color that contrasted sharply with his white beard sent a shiver through me that was even colder than the early November morning. Even from a few hundred yards away, I knew exactly what it was.
With trembling fingers, I dialed Nick.
The Norfolk County police arrived with their usual fanfare, sending up splatters of mud as two patrol cars came barreling over the dirt road far more recklessly than they should have. Their red lights flashed and their sirens made those obnoxious beeps that sound like the vehicle in question had too much spicy food the night before.
I stood a safe distance away from the corpse, wanting to seem respectful of death while at the same time serving as a sort of beacon, pointing the way. Max and Lou frolicked at my feet like two little kids. I was glad I'd gotten them away from the fascinating smells of the forest. The last thing I wanted was to disturb a crime scene. Especially this one, since I was already thinking of it as my crime scene.
Two uniformed officers climbed out of their cars, hoisting their belts and scowling as if they were already prepared for the worst. Well, they weren't about to be disappointed.
"You the person who called in?" the short, dark-haired one demanded, his New York accent so thick he sounded like a character in a Scorsese film. He wasn't much older than I was, but he already had the tired look and sagging belly of a man firmly planted in middle age.
He peered at me through dull, heavy-lidded eyes that were the same dark brown as his nightstick. "Name?"
"Jessica Popper. Dr. Jessica Popper."
The wheels turned in his head, so slowly I could practically hear them creak.
He smirked. "Like the drink?"
"That's Pepper. I'm Popper." And even though you clearly think you're incredibly clever, this is about the eight millionth time in my life I've had this exchange.
"Wanna tell me what happened here?"
I glanced at his name tag and learned I was talking to Officer Pascucci. "I came out here early this morning on a call. I'm a veterinarian, and--"
"You're a what?"
I peered at Officer Pascucci more closely, trying to decide if he hadn't heard me, hadn't mastered any six-syllable words or was merely toying with me.
"I'm a veterinarian," I repeated patiently. "An animal doctor? I was on my way to make a house call. One of the Athertons' stallions is sick."