The night was cold and bright, so clear the stars seemed to hang close enough for plucking; so clear that sounds, even small sounds – the slam of a car door, the creak of a gate, the crunch of hooves on frosted earth – echoed across the valley.
It was no night – or rather morning, for it was now after four – to be sitting in an outdoor dunny but that is where Molly Jones found herself, wondering why she had ever left Adelaide and the civilized comforts it had to offer. She took care not to shine her torch into dark corners, for the outhouse was home to any number of small creatures, most of them possessed of eight spindly legs. Business finished, Molly stepped out again into the night and felt the cold wrap itself around her. In spite of it, she did take a moment to glance at the magnificent sky; admiring the Southern Cross in all its splendour, she failed to see the fox slinking towards her chicken yard.
Brendan Jones, who was waiting on the edge of sleep for the piercing shriek of the alarm clock, felt Molly slide back into bed beside him. She rubbed Brendan’s leg with an icy toe.
‘We have got to get an indoor loo.’
‘Sure, darl. One day.’ Sleep crept up on him again. Blessed sleep.
‘There’s something I forgot to tell you last night.’
‘Oh yeah.’ Brendan fought his way out of the fog and came to his senses. They told him to be wary.
‘I had a call from Bianca yesterday.’
‘Forbes-Hamilton. She was one of my best friends at school.’
Well of course she was, Brendan thought. Molly had attended a ladies’ college where names like Forbes-Hamilton abounded.
‘And what’s Bianca up to?’
‘She’s coming to visit.’ And then it all came out in a rush, so Brendan couldn’t get a word in edgeways. Bianca hadn’t seen Molly in ages. She was a model, just back from a gruelling overseas assignment and she needed a bit of R and R in the country. Brendan would just love her, she was such fun. She was arriving tomorrow. Wasn’t that terrific?
Fortunately, Brendan was prevented from voicing his true feelings about Bianca’s imminent arrival by another, altogether different sound. It was being made by a lot of terrified chooks and only one thing could be causing it. Brendan was out of bed in one swift movement and Bianca was forgotten.
‘Damn that bastard fox!’ he yelled, dragging on boots and a battered old dressing-gown.
Molly was also struggling to throw off the doona. ‘My chooks,’ she said. ‘I’ll go.’
‘Don’t be silly. Time I got up anyway.’ The alarm shrilled to emphasise the point as he charged off towards the chook yard in the pre-dawn light, wishing he had more than a pitchfork to brandish at the intruder, wishing he had the rifle he’d wanted to buy but Molly wouldn’t have a bar of. He thought how ridiculous he must look and almost laughed out loud. Maybe he and the fox could have a good laugh together and come to some agreement.
No chance of that. It was still too dark for Brendan to see how the fox had gained access to the yard; that it had done so was not in doubt. Three of the terrified birds jostled and squawked together on their roost. The rest of Molly’s girls, as she liked to call them, the other four, lay dead on the ground with their heads bitten off. Brendan just stood and stared at them. He was a nurse. He was used to death. What he couldn’t cope with was wanton destruction. He’d seen enough of it working in emergency in big city hospitals; here it was in microcosm. And yes, perhaps it was just a few hens he was looking at, but they were Molly’s hens, part of her small farm family. Brendan would have understood if the fox had taken one to feed its family but this slaughter – this went against all the laws of nature. He was angry. They needed to get a dog, he thought. A very large dog. But first he had to go and ruin Molly’s day before it had even started.
Foxes were not a problem for Terence Elliott. He grew grapes on a small vineyard he’d acquired just a few months ago. The predators here were the silvereyes, which descended from the heavens when the grapes were fat with juice, and stuck their sharp little beaks into them and sucked them dry. Right now, however, the silvereyes were off on their winter migration and Terence himself, nursing a cup of hot coffee and gazing at the rows of sleeping vines, felt a rare sense of contentment. He was grateful for such moments; they did not come so often as they once had. He could not put his finger on the reason for it; why his life had lately seemed a little out of kilter but there was no denying it did. It wasn’t his work, he derived great satisfaction from being a country GP and the vineyard had given him a hobby he enjoyed. But he still felt that life was somehow passing him by, that it needed a cataclysmic jolt to set it off in a new direction. So he savoured these few minutes when all seemed well with the world.
People had said he was mad to buy Eldershaw Estate but he’d fallen in love with the place just as its previous owner had predicted; the fact that he’d also kept his sanity was largely due to the man beside him. ‘You’ve done a fantastic job with the pruning, Alex,’ he said.
‘To prune is good.’ Alex’s English was heavily accented, he had come to Australia from Serbia after the war. ‘To cut away the dead and make room for new growth – very satisfying.’
‘More like very hard work.’
‘Next week I like to start trimming the roots. Is okay?’
‘The roots?’ Terence clearly had no idea what he was on about.
‘The ones that grow sideways. We cut them off. This encourage the ones that go down?’
‘Oh. Oh, I see. Yes, that makes sense. I learn something every day from you, Alex.’
‘To learn how to grow the best grapes – this takes time, Dr. Elliott.’
‘I never doubted that for a minute. But please – tell me if you need more help. Don’t overdo it. We can’t have you exhausted for this wedding.’
Alex smiled. ‘My part is easy, only to give the bride away. I just hope she stays well now.’
‘She’s made a very good recovery. She’s going to be fine.’ Silvia, the bride in question, had recently contracted measles, of all things, and the wedding had been delayed for some weeks. But it would take place in a fortnight and the nice thing was, Terence thought, that not a person in Wandin Valley didn’t wish the couple well. The Popoviches – Alex, his widowed daughter-in-law Silvia and her young son – had arrived in town with the fruit-pickers. But fate had intervened, Silvia had met Bill Ferguson, a local dairy-farmer – and the rest was history.
Terence drained his coffee mug.
‘You not only know about vines, Alex, you make a damn fine coffee. Thank you. And now I’d better go and visit a few patients, I suppose. Though I think I’d rather potter around here all day.’
Alex just smiled. He didn’t believe that for a minute. Terence Elliott would always be a doctor first. The vineyard was just a minor passion.
Marta Kurtesz, matron at the local hospital, was also out and about indulging a passion that crisp winter morning. She’d been riding her horse, The General, for over an hour and was just thinking, like Terence, that her time was probably up. She should head back to the stables, where her car was parked, then home to change. She wasn’t due at work until ten but the hospital was chronically understaffed and she intended to go in early. She might, with any luck, at least catch up on the paperwork. She enjoyed a last canter through the state forest, splashing through the icy water of a small creek, then came to the road. Two kilometres more and she was about to turn into the stables when she saw a dog lying not far from the gate. She dismounted and went to look. It was a kelpie, no stray this but some farmer’s working dog.
He wasn’t dead but looked close to it. Marta acted quickly. She left the dog, rode fast up the long drive into the stables and called to Jean, the owner, who’d been expecting her. Marta explained the situation and Jean promised to look after The General and give him a good rub down. She also found an old blanket.
‘Here,’ she said, ‘wrap him in this. Was he hit by a car, do you think?’
‘Hard to say. It doesn’t look like that.’
‘Well keep me posted.’
‘I will. Thanks for taking care of The General.’
‘Not a problem.’
Marta collected her station wagon and picked up the dog on her way out. She wrapped him up, laid him gently on the back seat and headed for the veterinary clinic, praying that Vicky Dean would be on duty there and not away at some distant farm.
Vicky’s mother, Sister Shirley Dean, was definitely on duty, having just opened the Wandin Valley Clinic and found, to her dismay, that two windows had been broken and the place was like an icebox. Dr Simon Bowen arrived soon after and since the windows were at opposite ends of the clinic and the damage was almost certainly not accidental, pressed her to ring Sergeant Frank Gilroy. Which Shirley did, albeit reluctantly. The good sergeant adored Shirley, indeed his adoration was such that half the town expected a wedding before the year was out. But that was the half that didn’t know Shirley as well as they liked to think. She had no intention whatsoever of becoming a policeman’s wife. None. (Frank, on the other hand, believing in the attraction of opposites, had no doubt at all that he would eventually succeed in his suit.) Shirley hung up the phone. ‘Five minutes. He says there’s been a spate of vandalism.’
‘Kids bored out of their brains no doubt,’ said Simon. ‘Nothing to do in winter. Maybe you should ring a glazier as well, Shirl. It’s positively Arctic in here. Can I help you clean up the glass?’
‘Haven’t you got house calls to make?’
‘Only two. You sweet-talk the glass man.’ Simon got a dustpan and brush from the small kitchen and then stopped. ‘Oh. Maybe Frank won’t want us disturbing the crime scene.’
Shirley giggled. ‘Thank God you thought of that. No, of course we mustn’t, he’d have a fit. Go and make your calls, Simon, I’ll manage.’ Simon collected a few things from his surgery and left. Shirley got a promise from the glazier to come as a matter of urgency. Then a surprisingly officious Sergeant Gilroy arrived, closely followed by Esme Watson who was Terence Elliott’s first patient.
‘Goodness gracious, Shirley, whatever happened?’
‘That’s what I’m here to find out, Miss Watson, if you wouldn’t mind keeping out of the way?’ Frank gave her a glacial smile and she took a seat, much put out. ‘Now, Shirley – just the two windows?’
‘That’s right. I walked in this morning and found them broken. As you see.’
‘When was this exactly?’
‘Not long before I rang you. Maybe fifteen minutes before.’
‘You say you “walked in”. Was the door unlocked, then?’
‘Not at all. It was completely locked as usual. I had to use my key.’
Frank was prowling round by now, taking notes. ‘I see. So no sign of forced entry.’
‘No sign of any entry, Frank. Just the broken windows.’
‘And I don’t suppose you saw anyone?’
‘No, Frank. Not a soul. Not until Simon arrived.’
‘And where is Dr Bowen now?’
‘He’s making house calls, Frank. Or do you think he’s gone off to smash up someone’s property?’
Frank was just a little hurt, he felt her sarcasm was uncalled for. He said stiffly, ‘I just wondered if he might have anything to add. As I mentioned on the phone, there’s been quite a lot of vandalism. It’s my job to find the culprit before it escalates into something serious.’
Shirley felt a little abashed. Poor Frank, he was just doing his duty, he didn’t deserve her sharp tongue. ‘I’m sure Simon doesn’t know any more than I do. He thought it was probably kids, bored with nothing to do in the winter.’
‘And he’s probably right. But boredom’s no excuse, is it?’
‘In my day,’ said Esme, unable to keep quiet a moment longer, ‘we found more than enough to occupy ourselves. There was always the library.’
‘You need to know how to read, Esme. Ah, here’s Dr. Elliott.’
‘Heavens’, said Terence, ‘have we been burgled?’
‘Nothing so exciting,’ said Shirley. ‘Just a random act of wanton stupidity, wouldn’t you agree, Sergeant?’
There was nothing random about the act which had brought the kelpie Marta found to Vicky’s surgery. The dog had been poisoned. Marta watched, and helped where she could, while Vicky gave the animal an injection and even started to insert a stomach pump. But the stethoscope gave no sign of a heartbeat and nor could she find a pulse in the femoral artery. She began to pump the dog’s lungs with both hands and kept it up for a long time until she was exhausted. Then she looked at Marta and shook her head.
‘He’s gone, Marta.’
‘Poor thing. Who would do that, Vicky? Poison a beautiful dog?’
‘A farmer, maybe. Trying to protect his animals.’
‘But a kelpie?’
‘I know. Unlikely but not impossible that it might attack something. I need to do an autopsy, find out what sort of poison was used, if I can get the owner’s permission.’ She looked at the tag on the dog’s collar. ‘Which shouldn’t be a problem.’
‘Who did he belong to?’
‘Fiona Collins. She breeds coloured sheep for their wool. For weaving, you know? She rang me this morning to tell me her dog was missing.’
‘And the day started so well. I had a wonderful ride …’
‘At least you found Rusty and brought him in. Fiona can take him home if she wants to, bury him on the farm. She’ll be grateful, Marta.’
It was not much consolation but Marta knew they had both done all they could. She still had to go home herself and change into her uniform and get to the hospital. She was going to be late. She borrowed Vicky’s phone to ring Brendan and warn him.
At the hospital Brendan hung up and thought he should have warned Vicky that she was likely to get a visit from a rather overwrought Molly but he didn’t ring back. He’d left his wife talking somewhat manically about baits and traps for the fox and wanting to know what was legal. But perhaps she’d calmed down by now. Sister Judy Loveday came in.
‘Running late. She’s been trying to save a poisoned dog.’
‘I wonder what it did.’
‘The dog. For someone to poison it.’
‘Maybe it was accidental.’
‘Mm.’ Clearly, Judy didn’t think so. ‘Mrs Horley’s demanding to see Doc Elliott.’
‘She already has, he came in early.’
‘You and I know that, but how to convince her? Will you have a go?’
‘If you make me a coffee,’ Brendan said. But both Mrs Horley and the coffee had to wait.
Out in the corridor, a voice called, ‘Someone, please …’
Brendan and Judy both rushed out. An extremely agitated mother was supporting a girl of about nine. The latter was wheezing badly, barely able to breathe, and the mother’s panic wasn’t helping matters. Brendan, who knew all there was to know about asthma, picked the girl up and took her into the nearest examination cubicle while Judy went to call Terence Elliott. From the mother’s reaction, it might as well have been a kidnap attempt. She went from panic-stricken to totally hysterical.
‘What are you doing! She’s got asthma! It’s bad, it’s the worst attack she’s ever had, that’s why I came here!’
‘I know it’s asthma, Mrs ‒?’
‘Burns. This is Camilla.’
‘Mrs. Burns. So why don’t you just wait there and let me treat your daughter?’ Brendan tried, gently, to close the door on Mrs Burns but she wasn’t having a bar of it.
‘You can’t lock me out, I’m her mother, I’ve got all her medication! I know what she needs!’
‘Mrs. Burns, please. Could you try to calm down? This a hospital, we treat children with asthma all the time, we know what your daughter needs too. Calm and quiet, first up.’
Judy returned. ‘Doctor’s on his way.’
Mrs Burns looked at Brendan, horrified anew. ‘You’re not even a doctor?’
‘I’m a nurse.’
‘Then we’re waiting for the doctor.’
‘Mummy?’ Camilla was distressed, sobbing, her breathing worse, if anything.
‘I’m here, darling. I’m here.’
‘I’m sorry, but we can’t wait for anyone, Mrs. Burns. This is an emergency. Now would you please go outside?’
‘I can’t leave her alone with strangers! She’ll just get more upset!’
Brendan had had enough. ‘I said go, Mrs. Burns. Now. Just wait outside and let us do our job.’
Mrs Burns stood there a moment, looking at her daughter’s outstretched arms. And then at Brendan’s implacable face. She wavered and Brendan saw her waver and took her by the shoulders and steered her out the door and shut it firmly behind her.