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Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Vol. 108, No. 3 & 4. Whole No. 661 & 662, September/October 1996

Puppyland

by Doug Allyn

© 1996 by Doug Allyn

With three first-place wins in the EQMM Readers Award competition and a half-dozen Edgar Allan Poe Award nominations and awards for his short stories, Doug Allyn is one of the most celebrated of all mystery short story writers. “Puppyland” is the fourth entry in a series that has appeared only in this magazine.

The bitch had golden eyes, liquid and deep. Her coat was sleek, a lustrous liver color with white ticking on her shoulders and rump. She was a four-year-old German shorthaired pointer, weight, about seventy-five pounds. She looked exhausted. She was lying on her side on a red velvet pillow in an elaborate wicker dog basket. Her name was engraved on an ornate brass plate on the front. Hilda Von Holzweg. Five squirming furballs were sucking at her swollen breasts.

A sixth wasn’t squirming anymore. She’d pushed it to the edge of the basket away from the others. David picked up the dead pup. It was already cooling. Hilda raised her head a moment and glowered at him, but didn’t growl. Probably didn’t have the energy.

“How long was she in labor?” David asked.

“I’m not sure,” Ted Crane said. “She had them in the night. I checked her at eleven just before I went to bed. Then this morning, about seven, there they were.”

“And this pup was alive then?” David said, turning the small body over, examining it for injuries or obvious flaws.

“I believe so. I can’t honestly say I took special notice of it, I mean, they all look pretty much alike, except for the solid white one. Is it an albino?” Crane was a bit of an albino himself, a handsome one, tall and fair, with sandy hair and nearly invisible eyebrows. He was dressed for the office in a mocha-brown three-piece power suit. His Sulka tie probably cost more than the loden-green corduroy sport coat David was wearing.

“I doubt he’s a true albino,” David said. “His nose is dark. Can’t be certain until his eyes are open, though. Solid-white shorthair pups are quite valuable, I understand. Did the dead pup try to suckle at all?”

“I think so. I didn’t really pay any special attention to it until I noticed it was just stumbling around, kind of wheezing. And then it died. The other one was wheezing too, but it was all right afterward.”

“The other one?”

“Another pup was behaving oddly. My wife has it in her room, feeding it with a bottle.”

“And it’s taking the bottle?” David frowned.

“Seems to be. But only when she holds it. It stops trying when she puts it down.”

“I see. Is she cradling it? Like a baby, I mean?” David demonstrated what he meant by cradling the dead pup in the crook of his arm, with its head upright.

“Something like that,” Ted acknowledged, wincing at the casual way David handled the tiny corpse. “But she can’t hold it for long. She’s... quite ill herself. Look, I can’t hang around here all day, I have to get back to the office. I have a luncheon meeting at one.”

“I’ll just be a few more minutes,” David said, examining the dead pup’s face more carefully. There were bubbles of dried milk in its nostrils. He tried to force its mouth open with a fingertip but it was locked shut. Rigor mortis had already set in. “I don’t think this is anything serious, Mr. Crane. The mother and the rest of the pups look healthy as horses. I’d guess this fella’s problem was a birth defect rather than an illness. I’d better examine the other sickly pup, though, if you don’t mind.”

“My wife’s room is at the head of the stairs,” Crane said impatiently. “I really have to go. Will you take care of the dead one?”

“You mean dispose of it?” David said.

“I’d appreciate it,” Crane said. “I don’t like having to mess with... dead things.”

“I thought you worked at the hospital,” David said.

“I’m Director of Public Relations,” Crane said, trying not to sound smug, and failing. “I deal with fund-raising, not patients. Frankly, I try to have as little to do with corpses as possible.”

“I’ll see to this one,” David said. “Do you have a plastic bag?”

“In the kitchen. Thanks for coming by, Dr. Westbrook. I really have to go.” Ted Crane hurried off. Grateful for an excuse to be away from the messy business of life and death, David thought.

David left Hilda and her pups in their basket and wandered into the living room. The Crane home was a mansion, really, filled with antiques. The Persian rugs were rich, but showed signs of wear. Tudor furniture was covered in white damask, and an honest-to-God Gone with the Wind staircase swept up to the floors above. The stairway had been modified to accommodate a wheelchair lift. David followed the lift rails up to the second floor. The first door was ajar and he rapped lightly.

“Mrs. Crane?” No answer.

“Hello?” He peered cautiously around the door. A woman was propped up in bed, surrounded by pillows, cradling a puppy in her arms. “Hi,” David said, “I’m Dr. Westbrook, the veterinarian. Your husband said you were having a spot of trouble with some of the pups. May I come in?”

She nodded, closing her eyes a moment. Her hair was auburn and very fine, like a wispy halo of fire. She was wearing a jade-green embroidered silk bed jacket. It matched her eyes, which were a deep, deep emerald. And very sunken. She was probably in her mid thirties, but illness was ageing her. There was a rack of medical equipment beside her bed, a humidifier, a heart monitor, and a respirator the size of a small microwave. A length of flexible tubing connected the respirator to a breathing mask on the pillow beside her.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, “I have some difficulty talking. How’s Hilda?”

“She’s fine,” David said. “So are her pups. How’s this little guy doing?”

“Not well. He’ll only eat if I hold him.”

“May I?” David took the pup from her arms. He stepped over to the window for better light, then worked his finger into the hinge of the pup’s jaw, pried it open, and peered in. Damn. There was a narrow schism in the roof of its mouth. Double damn.

“What is it?”

David hesitated.

“Just say it, Doctor. I’m used to hearing bad news.”

“He has a birth defect, Mrs. Crane, a cleft palate. I expect the one that died had the same problem. I’m sorry.”

“Call me Inga, please. How bad is it?”

“It’s usually fatal, I’m afraid. They can’t suck very well, you see, so they either starve, or milk gets into their airways. The pup downstairs probably suffocated.”

“But this one seems to be feeding all right.”

“That’s because you were holding him upright. He doesn’t have to suckle. The milk’s trickling down the back of his throat.”

“Well, what’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, for now. But he won’t be able to eat solid food that way, or even drink water normally. He could choke, or get fluid into his lungs and die of pneumonia.”

“Isn’t there anything you can do?”

“Well, on an adult dog, I could repair the palate by inserting a plate, perhaps, but the procedure’s not practical and the surgery would be both risky and expensive in any case.”

“But it would be possible? On an adult dog?”

“Mrs. Crane, Inga, forgive me for being blunt, but pups with this problem rarely reach adulthood.”

“Really? Take a look at all the machinery beside my bed, Doctor. Do you know what it’s for?”

     

 

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