Mayberry Schultz had carefully built a reputation as the best vet in this small town situated on the Hume Highway. He was a question mark of a man; so stooped in the back he curved distinctly forward from the waist, while his thin legs with their shuffling gait seemed to be perpendicular to his path. His practice consisted mainly of pet cats, who had met with an accident on the aforementioned thoroughfare. Despite his years of experience operating on mangled and squashed animals, he continued to be amazed by two things: the prodigious resilience of the cat, and the animal’s attraction to thin, intellectual single ladies. Of course, their town held only a small, aging population and an intellectual was any person who could complete The Age crossword in under an hour. That is of course if you did not count the retired Professor Pennworthy who had completed a PHD in Biomedicine.
Rotown only had one officially single intellectual lady. Mayberry didn’t think women who’d been widowed a few years counted. You had to be a bonafide spinster to merit the term, and Miss Stern certainly was one. Cynthia Stern was a mousey haired rail of a woman, aged somewhere between forty-five and sixty depending on who you asked. Her eyes were bright blue and soul-piercing. Her hair was carefully arranged into tight curls, that were fifty percent gray. She admitted to feeding two hundred cats, and enjoying the howling and mewling of the large colony of strays that lived in the old timber yard on the west boundary of her property. On a full moon she reported seeing the colony of cats in congregation surrounding a large apricot tom whose throaty meows were answered with a chorus of yowls from the gathered felines. She looked forward to the subsequent births of kittens, and judging by the softening of her visage reserved solely for these furry bundles, she loved cats more than people.
Mayberry and Peter Pennworthy spent many an evening discussing cats both wild and domestic. They enjoyed a beer together on each other’s verandahs, and discussed their lives. Sometimes they wondered why they stayed in Rotown. It didn’t even have a pub anymore. They both travelled into Shepparton once a week for a darts competition night at the Royal Hotel. They had been friends for eight years, four months and 25 days when Peter made a strange request: Would Mayberry meet him at the local cemetery
at 10pm the following Monday? Mayberry was taken aback that Peter would ask to meet somewhere 10 kilometres away, but he thought of him as a mostly sensible fellow so he agreed.
It was a night lit by only a pale, sickle moon. Mayberry took the torch from his glove box to light the way. Soon he saw Peter’s familiar figure outlined against a large tombstone. Peter wasted no time in explaining why he had asked for the secret meeting. For many years his ambitions had been thwarted regarding research. He desired to finally finish his controlled study on the hormone changes in cats when they suffered serious trauma. His research grants had stopped exactly ten years ago when he was close to a breakthrough. If he could find a few more cats to study he was sure he would have the key to shortening healing times in human surgical patients.
“I have a friend in human medicine who encourages me. Would you help me?”
“How can I help, exactly?”said Mayberry.
” Let me be your assistant when you care for the next cat that has an accident.”
“Well, that might be at least a month. Usually there is a sharp increase in November when all the stores start ordering Semi-trailer loads of Christmas stuff, but I’ll say yes.”
Peter nodded. “I’ll need to take a small sample of blood, every hour during the cat’s recovery period.”
Mayberry frowned. “As long as it’s small, just a few drops.”
Peter hesitated, looking unusually inscrutable, and then nodded.
As Mayberry drove away from the cemetery he had a feeling he would live to regret his words.
Mayberry didn’t see Peter for the next two days. To add variety to his veterinary experience and interest to his life, Mayberry had taken up a Pro bono consultant’s role to a nearby wildlife shelter which gave him the chance to help sick and injured Wallabies, Kangaroos, Koalas and Possums. He stayed away overnight to assist the shelter owner in caring for two joeys that had been orphaned by the unauthorized shooting of their mothers. He was bleary eyed and almost incoherent by the time he finished up at the shelter and headed back to Rotown. He was stunned to see Cynthia Stern standing in his driveway, when he pulled up on the graveled strip that ran between his clinic and house. She waved but as usual her mouth remained a straight line. Mayberry sighed as he stepped out of his vehicle.
She stood as erect as a sergeant major at the end of Mayberry’s drive. Her blue polyester day dress and immaculate navy cardigan were reminiscent of a uniform. Mayberry swallowed awkwardly and she spoke first. Her clear deep voice rang in his ears.
“Mr Schultz, two of my cats were run over last night. This is unprecedented!”
He opened his mouth to speak, but she continued. “The only person who offered aid was Professor Pennworthy, but he has been closeted with the sole surviving cat for the last twenty four hours, and won’t answer my calls or let me into the clinic. I tried to call you several times in the wee hours”, she trumpeted, “but you did not answer.”
Mayberry shuddered and swallowed hard to moisten his dry throat.
“I was caring for a Kangaroo joey”, he squeaked.
“That may be well and good, but your main practice is here, is it not?”
Mayberry longed for a hot snack and a nap, but he had to get rid of the irritating woman. He tried to pull himself as erect as possible and looked Ms. Stern in the eye. “I’ll see to it straight away, and call you shortly.”
He marched as fast as he could to the clinic and slammed the door. He locked the door, and leant against it. He had known he was going to regret his words to Peter. What the hell have you been up to, Pete? He thought.
The clinic was quiet except for the faintest sound of purring coming from the clinic. That’s odd, he thought, but it could mean good news. He looked down the hall and saw the unmistakable shadow of Ms. Stern through the frosted glass panel on the left of the door. He felt as close as he ever got to being angry. I’ll make a cup of coffee before I deal with her request.
He went into the break room, filled the electric kettle, and turned it on. The sounds from the surgery grew louder. The purring throbbed in his ears; he heard the sound of breaking glass, and loud meowing. What?
“Pete”, he called out, “Pete”. He heard thumping from behind the door.
He pushed on the door, and it was slow to open. There was a dead weight against the bottom. Finally, it was three-quarters open and he squeezed in. He stared in fascination at the large black and white cat sitting on the bench opposite. It had a smug gleam its two different coloured eyes and a blood collection pack between its paws. Broken glass and blood were on the floor below it. He looked to his right. Peter and the apricot tom were slumped against the bottom of the door. Peter had his sleeve rolled up, and a needle inserted in his right-arm vein. A tube and collection bag, were attached. The tomcat, obviously dead, lay stiff and open mouthed across his knees.
Mayberry grabbed Peter’s wrist. He could feel the faintest pulse. He called the ambulance, and told the Police as close to the truth as he could bear to. In an hour his clinic was cleared out, and he called Ms. Stern, who had disappeared when the ambulance turned up, to come and collect her cat. The black and white female appeared to wink her left eye, a piercing blue one, at him as he passed her over. He shook his head. It’s been a very long day, he thought.
Mayberry had yet to hear the whole story from the still unconscious Peter, but he was pretty certain of one thing: no one would be collecting blood for research from Rotown’s cats