Making no effort to disguise the irritation he felt, the tall, lean young man grumbled, “Yes, Nadean?” into the telephone transmitter.
“Someone left you a gift out by the mailbox.”
Twenty-four years old, blond with piercing blue eyes, Geoff McKenna winced and ran a long-fingered hand through his lank hair. “A gift? Really? Tell me how this is important.”
His sister told him, “It might be a snake. It’s inside a pillowcase with a rubber band around the opening. I think someone flung it out while they were driving by.”
The young man’s features darkened. “Is it alive?”
“Have you opened the pillowcase?”
“I don’t know if it’s venomous.”
“Good girl,” he said. “I’ll be there soon.” He handed the receiver back to the older woman who occupied the kitchen in a yellow, floral-print housecoat beneath a plain white apron with mushroom-colored ruffled trim. It was streaked with flour and the large, cluttered kitchen smelled like fresh-baked pretzels. “Thank you, Mrs. Merriman. I’m afraid I won’t be staying for dinner.”
The woman smiled understandingly beneath a layer of face powder, clumpy mascara, and coral-red lipstick that bled slightly into fine lines radiating out from her thin lips. She reminded him of one of his aunts. “Someone dropped off a critter for you?”
He nodded grimly. “Flung it out while driving by.”
Her pruney hands flew to the sides of her face with concern. “Oh, you go home and take care of that poor angel right away! Get goin’! It needs you!”
He smiled and bent to kiss her cheek in an area not streaked with drying sourdough. In the parlor of the old Victorian home he encountered Selwyn Merriman and apologized. “If you could forgive me, Mr. Merriman, I have an emergency I must attend to.”
The older man’s fleshy face wrinkled like a Shar Pei when he smiled. He made a gesture with his upraised left hand like he was screwing a lightbulb into a socket, the leather-patched elbow of his corduroy jacket resting on the elegant mahogany arm of his tapestry-upholstered seat. “I know you’ll take care of it. Just remember to make a decision on what sort of practice you intend to have—livestock, house pets, exotics—and then we’ll start reviewing locations.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” the younger man told him, pulling on a down-filled, quilted nylon jacket.
Mrs. Merriman snagged him before he reached the front door and thrust a white paper sack at him. “Let them cool, Geoffery.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Merriman,” he replied, offering a her a final smile before exiting onto their wraparound porch. An older yellow Lab resting in the weak light of a frosted sconce lifted its head at the sight of him and thumped its tail once before repositioning itself slightly with a whine of a sigh. “Goodnight, Knox,” he said softly, clearing the concrete steps with a jump and hurrying to his CJ-5.