My wife appeared looking slightly dishevelled, having wrestled with several bags of shopping from the car to the Institute kitchen by herself. Normally myself or McCavity would have assisted, but we were still being treated to tales of Mrs McHaggarty's colourful past. She took a long look at her mother before declaring 'You are drunk, mother, not broken' and heading towards the first aid cabinet.
'Ish me ankles pet. They're proper broken ah rekcon' moaned Mrs H.
'You may have twisted them slightly mother but as I'm sure Joseph has already told you - you have told her haven't you Joseph - good - that falling off bags of dead hedgehogs is unlikely to lead to broken ankles. Now lift up your feet and let me have a look.'
With the skill of a field surgeon my steady handed wife slipped a couple of tubular support bandages over her mothers thick ankles and told her to stand up. With a great deal of apparent pain my mother in law managed to rise from the chair before collapsing again complaining that her legs could 'nae take me weight now they've been weakend by the fracture'.
'Can I have a word dear?' I asked of my wife. I took her to one side whilst her mother rubbed at her ankle supports and harangued poor McCavity about conditions in the laboratory. My suspicions were already growing that she might be up to something, and I wished to confide my fears to my wife. 'Do you think she's turned into some kind of ambulance chaser?' I asked.
'Joseph, how could you think such a thing' protested Mrs Dr McC. 'She may be prone to petty thieving....
'Kleptomania I think is the technically correct description'
'Yes, OK, but I doubt she'd think we would fall for that one. I think the best thing is if I talk to her and take her home'
'But...that's a two hundred mile round trip!'
'Do you want her convalescing here? I can spend a couple of days with her, make sure she can walk unaided'
I had to concede, as usual, that my quick thinking wife had a point. I really didn't want her mother to hang around coming to any ideas about using her fall as an excuse for any money-grabbing activity, nor did I want to hear any more stories about how she was a victim of a corrupt justice system. So we agreed that they would leave immediately. 'Make sure you frisk her on the way out' I told my wife as she was packing. 'Disabled or no, I don't trust her. Check her bags. And underneath her wig.'
Did I mention that Mrs McH wore a wig? She unforunately had been suffering from alopecia for several years, and was forced to wear hairpeices. She wore them well, I have to say, and to the casual eye they were indistinguishable from natural hair. Expensive pieces I would say, and there had been some speculation as to how she could afford them. She herself had let it slip that she may have been seeing someone (her husband is currently in prison) who was keeping her at some level of luxury. The truth, as ever with Mrs McH, was probably somewhat less romantic.
Anyways, about one hour later I waved goodbye to Mrs McH and my darling wife having been assured that there was nothing about the person of my mother in law that was not rightfully hers. It was about 10 o'clock when they left , and I was now all alone in the institute, as both Denise and McCavity had been off duty for several hours. I decided that I might as well carry on with my hedgehog dissections and headed back to laboratory number 1.
As I approached the operating table my mind was briefly occupied by a childhood memory of my own mother breaking her ankle for real when she slipped on a plastic bag I had left on the floor of my bedroom. My grandmother had taken her to hospital leaving me all alone in an isolated house. They were gone most of the night, and I experienced fear like never before as I heard imaginary monsters running through the rooms.....
'Oh where the fuck has it gone?' I cried, startling myself at the use of an expletive. My exclamation was justfied, however, as I was now staring at an empty operating table. Instead of the dissected corpse of Hedgehog no 113 I saw only a thick smear of dried blood. Immediately I thought back to the sight of Mrs McH leaning over the table before falling, and I suspected that the insectivore may have simply been pushed on the floor as her hands skidded across the table. But no, there was no sign of the dead hedgehog anywhere.
My heart skipped a beat, and I told myself not to be stupid. But no-one had been back to the lab since the accident. Or at least, no-one should have been back. Everyone present had been accounted for at all times. Then it struck me that McCavity had probably come in and removed the hedehog thinking I had finished with it (he's a conscientious worker and keen to make a good impression).
My anxiety lifted and I looked for hedgehog no 114 - the last heddgehog scheduled for dissection. To my slight relief it was where it was supposed to be, running around in a a hessian sack used by Denise during her impressive hedgehog run that morning. The poor thing was in a bit of a state having been left for so long, and it looked at me with such fearful and watery little hedgehog eyes that I was minded for a moment to let it go back to the field, safe for at least another few months.
My scientific brain momentarily wrestles with the question of scientific objectivity vs compassion. On the one hand I am bound by scientific protocol and the need for complete disassociation from sny possible form of subjectivity. But, on the other hand, the estimated sample size for each survey I conduct does have a contingency 10% added in case of 'bad 'specimens. Which technically meant I didn't need the little fellow....and he did look just a little bit, well, cute...
Dear reader, journey with me now and picture the scene as I reveal what happened that night...
I place the Hedgesnap(TM) down, unsure as to how to proceed. Around me the freezers maintain their low hum. The lights dip slightly as the generator stutters, and a fox in a neighbouring field begins a high pitched bark.
My peripheral vision is alerted by something moving. Turning my head to the left, I see that outside the lab is a hooded man walking - almost creeping from left to right across my field of view. He moves slowly from one window to the next, oblivious to my stare.
I put the hedgehog down only for it to bite me before it runs to the edge of the table and disappears over the edge. I hear a small grunt and then the sound of tiny hedgehog feet trying to find purchase on the linoleum floor. The hooded figure has vanished.
I leave the lab with my heart beating rapidly. In one hand I have the Hedgesnap device, which to the untrained eye and in a bad light looks like it might be a dangerous weapon. I'm not sure, but I think the hooded person may have entered the institute. There are sounds of someone moving around, trying to be quiet. Then I catch sight of someone up ahead near the kitchen. My reaction is to shout. They turn to look at me for a moment then start running away. I briefly run after them, yelling at them to stop although in reality I just want them to leave.
I hear the main door open and then watch through a small window as the hooded figure runs towards the village. 'Ha!' I shout after them 'and don't come back!'
The figure keeps running until his shape is swallowed up by the darkness. I think about taking a walk around the institute to check for any accomplicies but then decide to lock and check all the doors and windows instead. On my way into the kitchen I notice that there is a smell of something cooking. I enter the kitchen and see a steaming pot on the hob. In my nervous state I think that what I can see on the side of the pot and the hob is fresh blood! But then I realise it its just some tomato sauce that's bubbled over. Silly me.
It all smells quite nice, and once again I find myself in awe of my delightful and thoughtful spouse. Not only has she come up with a clever ruse of relieving me of my difficult mother in law, but she has also found time to put together a stew for me whilst she is gone! What a remarkable woman!
I move over to the drawer and lift out a spoon, figuring that the stew must need stirring. As I lift the lid my nostrils are hit with the most wonderful aroma and my face is momentarily bathed in steam. The stew is bubbling violently so I turn the hob down and begin to stir. The gloopy mixture turns easily, but I'm stuck at first as to what the main ingredient might be. So I stir a bit more and lift out the spoon. All that comes up is a little tiny footpad, so small that it must have come from a very small animal. Something no bigger than....
Oh my good god. No, please no.
I stir a bit more and lift out a spoonful of tiny spines. Then another tiny leg, and finally the entire head of....
'Mrs Dr McC - how could you?' I cry in anguished confusion.
For I am staring not at a tender piece of beef, nor even the leg of a tasty chicken, but into the blackened, ruptured eye socket of none other than my penultimate specimen, the missing insectivore known to me previously as Hedgehog no. 113......