An unexpected Labrador in a vet’s clinic.

It was Claire’s evening routine: check on all the animals staying overnight in her veterinary clinic before locking up; food, water, bedding where appropriate, and each of the pens had a tag on them for pet name, owner details, symptoms and suchlike. Normally Judy, her admin assistant, filled them out, but it was Judy’s day off… Claire had been alone in the clinic all day.

That evening, though, one of the pens was not closed properly, with its tag completely missing, not just blank. Inside looked like a chocolate-coloured Labrador, dozing, oblivious to any questions Claire had.

“Odd,” she said to no-one, frowning, “could’ve sworn that pen was empty this morning.” And she hadn’t seen the Labrador come in through the front door. Every animal that had come in today, she had to have seen.

The back door had been locked all day – and still locked. The front was open to the public, of course, but they would have had to go past her. None of the customers had brought Labs.

Rummaging around her desk, Claire was confused. There was no record of a chocolate Lab coming in. Nor on the computer.

Claire perched on a bench by the pens, studying the unexpected guest. It looked to be clean but in need of a trim, and seemed in good health if a bit sleepy.

She made sure the mystery guest had enough food and water, looked around the back room for anything awry, but it was quiet as ever. Most of the animals in their pens were docile for the evening – it was quite late and they’d had a while to settle in.

One last look, she flipped the light switch and left for the evening.

Next morning, Claire was back before opening, as normal. First thing, to check on the animals – and all were present and accounted for – even the mystery Labrador. Though its pen was ajar… she was sure she’d locked it the previous night? With a soft click, she locked the pen again.

Before opening the front up, a quick trip to the bathroom – and there was a smudge of… was that mud on the floor? And was that paper down the bowl that hadn’t flushed properly? She’d been to the toilet yesterday, and that wasn’t how she’d left it…? Had a customer been in there? She looked at her shoes, maybe there was some mud she hadn’t noticed that had caught on the floor – and the plumbing in the place was old-fashioned, sometimes the paper did float back around the u-bend.

Oh, well, it could wait. There was some tidying-up of paperwork to do before Judy came in. Claired tucked her hair over her ear, and started filing yesterday’s animals onto the computer.

There was a sound of a scuffle out back, vaguely metallic scratching and a dull thud. Nothing unusual for animals waking up, moving around.

A short time later, Judy arrived, bearing steaming coffees and fresh croissants for the pair of them.

“Mmmm,” said Claire, “you’re spoiling me today!”

Judy smiled, “Had to try the new coffee place down the street, it smelled good so I hope it tastes good!”

There was a louder scratching and a thud from out back. Judy turned, looking vaguely in the direction of the animal pens, but Claire shrugged. “They’ve been a bit fidgety this morning. Also… you know anyone that has a chocolate Lab?”

“A chocolate Lab? No, but they’re sooooo cute. Why?”

“Because no-one I saw brought one in yesterday, and yet one’s in pen number six. And no tag.”

Judy frowned, “No-one?”

There was a much larger clanging noise out back. Even Claire turned and looked. “That was a bit loud for the animals.”

Leaving the front desk, Claire and Judy went back to the animal pens. They were still as Claire had checked them earlier… except for the chocolate Lab’s pen which was, again, ajar.

“See, there’s the chocolate Lab, and… I locked that pen last night, and again this morning… it keeps coming unlocked? Have you noticed it be loose before?”

Judy frowned. “I’ve not seen it loose, but that Lab… aw, no words for how cute!”

There was a thud from the back of the room. One of the large storage cabinets. Claire and Judy snapped their heads in its direction. The pen area was mostly open space for wrangling animals into pens, plus cupboards for storage, and a bench for sitting to keep watch on the animals. Claire noticed that that too had a smudge that looked like mud on it.

She took up a bar with a hook on the end – usually for corralling angry animals and keeping them at bay – and tapped the cupboard door with it.

Once. Twice. Then the door swung open, revealing a shabbily-dressed man, with long greying hair, half stepping and half falling out of the cupboard.

Claire was surprised but held the hook at him like some kind of weapon, trying not just to scream. “Who the hell are you?”

He caught himself, standing up as best he could, with a bit of a hunch, and he found himself looking up into Claire’s eyes with his own troubled, pale blue-grey eyes. “Sorry to scare you, we didn’t mean to cause no harm, misses, not me and Buster. Just… Buster there,” he waved at the chocolate Lab, “needed feeding, he’s had all our food for the last… nearly two full days. He deserves have somewhere warm and smells nice to sleep and a full belly just for the once.”

“I ain’t got no money, so I hoped I could sneak Buster as when you went to the pot yesterday. I seen you two, you look after the animals good. Was gonna sneak him back out again but you locked up on us so I been here the night, watching over him. We can go, if you like, or if you want to call the police, well, can’t stop you. Just… sorry for the trouble.”


Contest Entry

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction 2021 (1st Round, Challenge #2)
Originally written
September 11, 2021
Story prompt
Genre - mystery, location - a clinic, object - a missing pet sign
1000 words, in 48 hours starting midnight on Saturday, September 11
Other notes
Owing to an admin screw-up, this entry was not submitted correctly, and did not score points.

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