After so many adventures in foreign lands, in the circus, on the moon, undersea, and that unreported incident in Brooklyn, Dr. Dolittle looked forward to a quiet life. Not retirement—he was still vigorous, at the height of his powers, as round in the middle as he was short. He still dressed as though headed to some formal engagement, in striped trousers, checked waistcoat, cutaway and top hat, a costume that evoked the 1830s.
“Well-made clothes never go out of style,” he was fond of saying.
The doctor resumed his medical practice at Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Dud-Dub the duck, his housekeeper, nagged him to repair his finances. The other animals of his household were stressed from travel. Even the Pushmi-pullyu, formerly so reticent, found its voice.
“We hardly knew if we was coming or going,” it grumbled.
“Bless you,” Dr. Dolittle said, “there will be no more gallivanting all over creation. We have seen enough marvels to last a lifetime. Here in our own cottage, in our dear English village, we shall at last resume a normal schedule. Jip can recover from that spot of mange. Gub-Gub will get over that lingering case of swine influenza. And you will have a chance to exercise regularly and empty your bowels, wherever they may be situated, without attracting gawkers.”
He patted the Pushmi-pullyu on one of its two heads, while the other head looked nervously behind—or forward, as the case may be.
“What’s this?” the little man exclaimed. “Matthew Mugg so early in the morning! With a dog the like of which I have never seen.”
“Good morning, John,” said the Cats’-Meat-Man.
On a stout leash, he led—or was dragged by—a small, muscular dog with a smooth, light-colored coat and a brown patch over one eye.
“This here’s Butch. He’s a new dog, all right. I won’t trouble you with a long, detailed, and tedious story about his past, because there ain’t one. He arrived in the village as a puppy in a basket. He’s a cross between a pit terrier and a bulldog. The gentleman as what brought him in the basket called him a pit bull.”
“I have heard of this breed,” Dr. Dolittle said in a tone of disapproval.
“According to the gentleman, a pit bull combines the speed and tenacity of the terrier with the tenacity and strength of the bulldog. It has tenacity.”
“The pit bull is set on other dogs to fight while their owners wager on the contest. It is a disreputable entertainment. I should say that the breeder was no gentleman.”
The tall man ignored this implicit rebuke. As Dr. Dolittle made eye contact with Butch, the latter growled. The Pushmi-pullyu sidled away and made itself scarce.
“Just look at those jaws!” Matthew said.
“Indeed. Is that blood on his muzzle?”
“Sharp eyes you have. It could be dirt or the bark of a stick. Butch will chew anything, won’t you, boy?” Matthew scratched behind Butch’s ears, and the dog wagged a stubby tail.
“He looks perfectly healthy,” the doctor said. “What can I do for you?”
“It’s like this,” Matthew began. “There’s been a disappearance. My youngest, to be particular. When the missus went to the cradle this morning, she cried out: ‘The baby’s gone!’ Now, you might suppose that with half a dozen urchins crawling underfoot, one more or less wouldn’t matter so much, but you might be mistaken. Little Dora was the apple of her mother’s eye, and she was nowhere to be found. Seeing as how Butch here was in the same room with the baby overnight, he is likely the last one to see her alive. And seeing as how you can talk to animals, the missus took it into her head for you to have a talk with Butch. Find out if he saw or heard anything suspicious.”
“You would like me to question Butch on the whereabouts of Baby Dora.”
“In a nutshell.”
“Perhaps you could get him to sit,” Dr. Dolittle said. “He seems tense.”
“Strangers get him riled.”
As Matthew persuaded his charge to sit and relax, Dr. Dolittle extracted a pipe from a pocket and lit the tobacco already in it. Puffing meditatively, he turned his attention to Butch.
“Hello,” he said in dog language. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“What can you tell me about the Mugg baby? Did you like Dora?”
“She was all right.”
“Is that all? Did she play with you?”
“Sure. We were pals.”
“How did she treat you?”
“Rough. Dora liked to pummel. She butted me with her head, pulled my tail, and put my paw in her mouth.”
“None of those things bothered you?”
“She wasn’t so different from a puppy. Less coordinated.”
“How did you play with Dora?”
“I nudged her with my nose, rolled her so I could lick her tummy, and chased her. Once she learned how to go on all fours, she was a terror.”
“Did you ever bite the baby?”
“No.” Butch was sullen.
“In the course of rough and tumble, did you ever hurt the baby?”
“Maybe. They bruise easily.”
“About last night. What happened after bedtime?”
“Dora crept out of the cradle. She was all over me. She wanted to play.”
“And you did not?”
“I was asleep. She startled me. She beat on me with her little fists. She kicked me.”
“Did you nip her in exasperation?”
“I might have. I was still half asleep.”
“Did you draw blood?”
“Now that you mention it, I smelled something. It could have been blood. The baby must have hurt herself. She started to wail, and that upset me.” Butch stood.
“Then what happened?” The doctor was calm but alert.
“I don’t know.” The fur rose on Butch’s hackles.
Dr. Dolittle exchanged a meaningful glance with the Cats’-Meat-Man, who tightened his grip on the leash.
“Are you quite certain?”
“Baby went bye-bye.” Butch’s lips curled in a snarl.
“Did you by any chance eat the baby?”
Butch strained against the leather strap.
“Because if you did, that was wrong, you know.”
“She made me do it!” Butch lunged at the doctor.
“You are a vicious cur and must be put down.”
Dr. Dolittle pulled a small pistol from his waistcoat. It was already loaded. Discharging an unpleasant duty, shot the dog through the head.
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, Short Fiction (UK). His one-act plays are staged this year in Concord, North Carolina and the Detroit Fringe Forward Festival.