I had scrambled eggs and another muffin, raspberry this time. Sid also had scrambled eggs. “On the house,” said Bridget.
I drank the last of my tea and stood up, feeling my belly pressing against the beltless waist of my jeans. It was okay, I was going to be carrying 1,000,000,000 books up a flight of stairs today, plus a rose-bush in an osmium-alloy pot (with granite boulders inside for improved drainage) and a small but sturdy two-seater sofa. By dinner I would be thin again. Meanwhile I could feel my face falling at the immediate prospect of the visit to the vet, however nice he was and however thrilled at the idea that the Phantom was off the streets.
Bridget came out to collect the tray, took one look at my face and said, “Don’t worry. The Phantom’s been living rough for months. If someone really wanted her back, they’d’ve been looking for her harder. Both Jim and the warden put it out there that we had a tall black phantom in town and never got a single response. You want to worry about something, you worry about what she’s going to cost in dog food by the time you get her back to a reasonable weight.”
I tried to smile. I picked up the end of my muffler.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” said Bridget, fishing in a bulging apron pocket. “The only lost and not found collars—you’d be amazed at what ends up on the floor of a diner by the end of the day—are too small, but here’s a perfectly good lead.” She held out a handsome red leather lead. It looked really good on a black dog. My belt was going to let our fashion statement down a little though. I managed to clip it into the buckle.
“Golly,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Bridget. “But it’s been sitting in a box in a corner of the kitchen for months. Go on, I’ll tell Jim you’re on your way.”
Thus adjured, we went heavily (but that could just be breakfast) down the little corridor to the street. We crossed Bradbury, turned left on Sturgeon and right again on Brunner. I was so busy stressing about the vet I almost didn’t notice how quietly Sid was trotting beside me. Maple Tree Clinic. Damn. We were here already. We went up the steps and through the doors, Sid behaving as if she did this every day. That distinctive smell hit us: cleanliness so scrupulous (and so frequently reinforced) that it made your eyes water, and the background aroma of critter. Sid finally reacted: she let me get the door closed behind her, but she wouldn’t come in any farther. “I don’t like the doctor’s office much either,” I said to her, and sat down on the floor next to her. She sat slowly and stiffly down beside me, but she wasn’t happy. Which made two of us.
“I’m sure I heard the door,” said a female voice. There was the noise of rubber soles on gratuitously clean vinyl. “Oh! Jim said someone had caught the Phantom! I thought he was joking!”
I looked up. There was a plump smiling woman probably about my age standing in a doorway. “Hello, love,” she said to Sid. “You stay where she’s comfortable,” she said to me. “The clinic’s not open till later, so there shouldn’t be anyone coming through the door behind you.” She disappeared. Low voices. Then a man appeared in the doorway. He was also plump and smiling. He looked like the sort of person who stocked only the finest lollipops. I relaxed marginally. “I’m Jim,” he said. “You just met Callie. We both know the Phantom. You are?”
“Kes,” I said. The lump in my throat was getting in the way.
“Well, Kes,” he said, “I can’t tell you how pleased I am to see the Phantom off the street. Usually a dog recognises who’s putting food out for her, and is glad enough to come indoors when the weather turns foul. Not the Phantom.” He took a step forward. Sid watched him but didn’t move. He took another step. “How long have you had her?”
“Only since last night. I’m staying at the Friendly Campfire—which probably doesn’t take dogs. She was just there on my doorstep. But I’m moving into my house in Cold Valley today. I’d have room for a dog. I meant to get a dog, just not till after I had a house.” I was trying to keep my voice low and calm. Sid stopped watching Jim long enough to look at me. “Hey, cutie,” I said, and ran a hand gently down her throat. Jim took another step. He was now quite close. But Sid had decided he was okay. When he knelt down beside us she even gave her tail half a wag.
He raised his hands and let her sniff them. He was carrying a funny fat wand thing in one of them. “I thought we’d start,” he said quietly, “by checking for a microchip. I don’t expect to find one, and I assume Bridget’s already told you that the Phantom has been in lurking in the New Iceland shadows for several months. I’m sure she’s yours if you want her.” He let her sniff the microchip scanner, and then held it over the base of her neck.
There was a soft beep.
“Callie,” said Jim, still quietly. “The Phantom is chipped. Will you take this and see what you can find out?”
I nearly burst into tears.
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