Chloe pressed her lips together. “There’s Dr. Ruth Lester over on Brook Street.”
“Dr. Ruthless?” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding. People do nothing but gripe about her being a rip-off. And a mean rip-off, at that.”
“Unless you want to head down to Gloucester, I’m afraid she’s your only nearby option. Gail was so special . . . I don’t know what would’ve happened to our dogs without her.”
I looked at her. “What dogs?”
Chloe gazed back across the table for a moment, lifted her coffee cup, and sipped. She seemed a bit disconnected again. “I meant the Cove’s dogs. In general. We have so many of them. Even more dogs than cats. Probably more per household than anyplace else in Cape Ann. Didn’t you know?”
“Well, I’m sure that’s true. But I didn’t mean to change the subject.” She cleared her throat. “The truth is that Gail didn’t leave much room for competition.”
I considered that. The Gloucester Animal Clinic didn’t take patients without a prescheduled appointment. Also, I had back-to-back cleaning jobs in the Cove starting at noon. Even if I could talk Ski’s way into the Gloucester clinic on last-minute notice, driving back and forth would take a while . . . and force me to cancel out on my clients.
Still, I really hated to put things off. Cats usually felt pretty sick by the time they showed symptoms. Or so I’d read somewhere.
“I guess Dr. Ruthless it’ll be,” I said.
Chloe noticed my glum face. “You don’t seem thrilled,” she said.
“And you just won this morning’s understatement award,” I said with a sigh. “Chloe, I know this isn’t logical, but I feel terrible about bringing Skiball over to Doc Ruthless. It almost seems a betrayal.”
She sat there regarding me. No,
me. Suddenly she seemed her usual astute self. “Of Gail? Or Skiball?”
I didn’t have to waste time thinking about an answer.
“Both,” I said, rising to carry my dishes into the kitchen.
Dr. Ruthless’s waiting room was packed when we arrived. This was unusual, not because it was early in the morning, but because I’d figured she had too few patients to ever make a crowd. Of course, a lot of them were probably there because they had no decent alternative. I would’ve bet half the pets in the room had been Gail Pilsner’s regulars.
Toting Ski in her kitty carrier, I went over to the reception desk and got a clipboard with a new-patient chart from the doctor’s assistant, a frumpy, detached sort of woman named Madge. Then I found a seat, put Skiball’s carrier on the floor between my legs, and started filling out the form.
Ski was making a fuss inside the little carrier and it kept bouncing around like a Mexican jumping bean. She wasn’t happy. I wasn’t happy. In fact, not a single animal or human being in the place looked happy, and Madge’s rotelike personality didn’t help.
In fairness, she’d squeezed Ski in for a nine o’clock exam on very short notice. I tried to be appreciative of it rather than get too put off by her uninviting office manner. Bad enough I had misgivings about her allegedly bill-padding boss.
“Ms. Taylor? Have you filled out the patient forms yet?”
I looked up, pen in hand. Madge had come around from her desk.
“Almost,” I said. “I’m just about done with my medical history. That is, Skiball’s med—”
“Let me have them.” She snatched the clipboard from my lap and gestured toward a hallway to one side of her desk. “Go to the third examining room on the left. The doctor will be with you momentarily.” She frowned down at the clipboard. “You didn’t provide all the necessary information, but this should do.”
“Meh,” Skiball said through her carrier’s mesh window.
I couldn’t have put it any better.
The examining room was simple, institutional, and cold. Closed venetian blinds, white tiles on the floor and walls. Gail’s office was wainscoted with rich natural mahogany. There’d been a wall covered with photos of her favorite furry, feathered, and scaly patients. And she’d had light, airy curtains over the windows. I could picture them blowing in the breeze on pleasant days.
I set Skiball’s carrier down on the examining table, let her out, and slipped my finger under the collar she always wears on trips to the vet. Then I scratched her chin to dupe her into thinking I was making nice rather than restraining her. Two years of living with a cat had taught me the incomparable value of trickery and deceit in a loving relationship.
Soon Dr. Lester came in. A short, not unattractive woman in her late thirties, she had frosty blue eyes, a long, thin face, and a bob of ear-length black hair with a straight fringe of bangs cut a bit too short . . . or a forehead that was a little too high, depending on how you looked at it.
A clipboard under her arm, she gave Ski a quick once-over, peeking into her ears and lifting her upper gums with her thumb. After that, the doc made a
ing sound, leaned back against a stainless steel counter, and reviewed the charts, her mouth screwing up with what might have been distaste. I wondered if she was reacting to the incomplete paperwork, but decided she must have already known about it. Madge would have snitched me out in advance.
Another couple of minutes passed. Dr. Lester studied the papers in pucker-lipped silence. It made me antsy. Silence from doctors never seemed a good sign. And silence from doctors with charts in their hands was especially worrisome. I always felt it meant they were deciding whether to operate, or maybe amputate, which of course was a crazy thought on my part. Still, Ski’d never had a major health problem. All I’d written on the forms was her name, sex, approximate age, and vaccination dates. What could be so interesting about the papers?
I decided to offer my two cents. For the sake of perspective.
“I think Skiball’s symptoms are pretty mild,” I said. “From what I read on the Internet, she might have a hair ball—”
“Ms. Taylor, we should start by addressing your cat’s hygiene issues,” she broke in.
I blinked. Skiball groomed herself every chance she got. In fact, she was famous (with me) for her cleanliness, and wouldn’t even set foot in a dirty litter box. I wanted to cover her ears.
“Are you sure?” I said. “Skiball’s impeccable. I—”
Lester glanced up at me. “In this office, I make the diagnosis.”
“Good. You can save your questions until I’m ready.” She returned her eyes to the clipboard and slipped a pen from the breast pocket of her frock. “Let’s see . . . We need to schedule a dental scaling. Possible extractions.”
“What?” I said. “You want to pull her teeth?”
“I said it’s a possibility. There’s plaque. Don’t be fooled because it isn’t visible. A buildup could lead to gingivitis or even heart disease.” She put a check mark on one of the charts. “While Sky Bell is under sedation, we’ll get those claws clipped. Do a professional grooming to remove abundant winter fur. It’s that time of year.”
“My cat’s name is Skiball
As in ‘skis’ and ‘ball,’ ” I said. “Also, someone had her front paws declawed before I owned her. I’m positive I wrote that information on your form—”
“I meant the hind claws, Ms. Taylor. And please don’t interrupt.” She stared at me. “Once more and I’ll have to ask the cat to leave. This is a busy office. There are other patients in the waiting room.”
I stood there at a loss. Somehow I’d thought I was the one who’d been interrupted. A half dozen times. Call me impulsive, but suddenly it was all I could do to keep from grabbing Skiball and heading straight out the door. No need for Dr. Lester to steer me in its direction.
Dr. Lester had gone on scrutinizing the papers on her clipboard. “Sky Bell’s information has to be updated,” she said. “We should take X-rays, do a full blood workup . . . I’ll prep her with intravenous fluid.”
“You want to hook Sky—I mean
ball—up to an IV bag?”
“Correct. A little subcutaneous hydration can’t hurt as a precaution before we put her out. I’ll prescribe several nutritional supplements for bringing her red blood cell count back up afterward. You can refill them with me once a month. The pills are normally meant for medium-to-large dogs, but we sell applicators that can force them down your cat’s throat—”
I hesitated. “Look . . . I already explained that Ski doesn’t seem all that sick. I’m really thinking the problem could be a bad hair ball. You mentioned this is the season for it. And so does
“The Web site?”
“You believe everything you read on the Internet?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yes, you did,” she said.
“No, I did not,” I said. “What I told you was—”
“That you found the information online.”
“Right. But that isn’t the same as believing whatever—”
“So you only believe a
of the nonsense you read on message boards?”
“And what percent would that be? Ten? Twenty? Half of them?”
is sponsored by licensed veterinarians—”
“Or convicted felons claiming to be veterinarians,” she said. “You and I aren’t buddy icons floating around cyberspace, Ms. Taylor. Nor is the cat. This happens to be a legitimate, real-world veterinary clinic, where a battery of tests will be necessary for me to proceed with your pet’s medical care. If you find the expense too high, we can use a cheaper but less effective anesthetic for her dental work. Defer the clipping. And discuss a payment plan. Though I do attach an added fee for that courtesy, and will require two credit card numbers on file as backup.”
I was shaking my head. “I’m not worried about the cost. But Ski shouldn’t have to be put through those tests. Her records are all at Dr. Pilsner’s office.”
“If you say so. Unfortunately, I have no access to them. You didn’t even provide the cat’s exact age.”
“Because I don’t know it,” I said. “I found her . . . or a late friend of mine did. He was taking a walk and saw her in the middle of the road—”
“Which makes her a mongrel feline and former stray with an uncertain history. It doesn’t even give me a pedigree to establish any sort of baseline profile.”
That did it. I’d heard enough. Any vet who could foist nail clippings, a dental cleaning, vitamins, unnecessary blood samples, and an IV on Skiball before even
at her wasn’t for me.
I hefted her from the examining table into the crook of my arm, snatching up her carrier with my free hand.
Dr. Lester looked surprised. “Where are you going?”
“Gloucester,” I said. “Or Beverly. Or Boston, even. Wherever there’s a veterinarian who won’t literally try to bleed my cat dry, then insinuate she’s some ragged stumblebum with a shady past.”
I could see that took her aback, and couldn’t have been gladder. Maybe I
a little impulsive. But I’d grown accustomed to Gail Pilsner’s kindness. Dr. Lester seemed not to care whether she was performing a dissection or an operation. No, check that. She seemed not to know the difference between them.
I turned and walked out of the examining room before she had a chance to shove me out. Skiball clung to me tightly, her hind claws digging into my jacket sleeve.
I didn’t blame her for sounding insulted. But I could have done without her mauling the sleeve. I swept past the reception desk to the waiting room. Weaving through the mob of pets and pet owners, I pulled up to a table covered with magazines, rested the cat carrier on top of them, and gently got Skiball back inside despite her complaints.
I must have been halfway through the door when I saw Morrie Silverberg, the ophthalmologist, a few paces down the sidewalk, heading toward the clinic with his mini bulldog, Bits.
There are people who dress for the weather, and people who dress for the season. Morrie fell into the second category. Despite the forty-degree temperature and overcast sky, he’d decided to herald in the spring by wearing sunglasses, a short-sleeved white polo shirt, and red plaid Bermuda shorts that coordinated perfectly with Bits’s red plaid collar.
I stood watching them, mesmerized. They made quite a dapper sight. Not to mention a peculiar one. I should mention that neither seemed even slightly chilled.
“Sky! Oh, Sky!” Morrie waved a hand in the air like someone flagging down a Manhattan cab. “Glad to see you . . . I didn’t realize your cat is Ruth’s patient.”
She wasn’t, of course. But I didn’t feel like getting into it. “What’s new, Morrie?”
“Something you’ll want to hear about . . . it’s a fantastic coincidence that I’ve run into you this morning. Saves me some cell phone minutes!”
I waited curiously as Morrie took off his sunglasses, slipped them into his breast pocket, and replaced them with regular tortoiseshell frames from the same pocket.
“You know Vaughn Pilsner, right?”
“Gail’s ex-husband,” I said. “Actually, I’ve just heard some things about him. They were divorced before I came to town.”
“Those two made some couple. Threw a heckuva party too,” Morrie said. He sounded wistful. “I don’t know what went wrong. It could have been the age difference—he’s twenty years older than Gail. But they stayed amicable afterward.”
I nodded but didn’t comment.
“Vaughn’s my best friend going back to high school, a great fellow,” Morrie went on. “Of course, Gail was super too. I always hoped they’d work out their differences.” A shrug. “We have our hopes, dreams, and everything in between. I should have known a reconciliation wasn’t in the cards once he moved away.”
“He lives out West these days, right?”
“Los Angeles. He’s a retired banker and still does some freelance consulting there,” Morrie said. “Vaughn flew in last night. Says he intends to handle the funeral arrangements.”