Whether you call it chance, or fate, very few people end up in Copperopolis by design. Perched at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, the town seems almost forgotten. It’s barely paved roads scattered with a handful of sun bleached buildings the copper barons couldn’t quite fit in their pockets when they packed everything up, and shuttered the town’s namesake mine so many years ago.
However, while California’s coastal cities broadcast themselves the world over, while Los Angeles markets fantasy, and San Francisco peddles information, and Napa bottles pleasure for a price, the backroad towns of the California gold country hold their secrets close. Here flinty miners and forty-niners once set up silent camps, panning creeks and rivers, and hoping to pluck a dream from the icy waters. Here their hard earned money was spent too, on liquor, and cards and women harder than whiskey, and twice as strong.
But none of this, though interesting, was the reason Rose Tyler moved to Copperopolis in the late summer of 2012. Nor was it the amber rolling hills, punctuated with dark lone oaks, like the period of a haiku you can’t quite fathom. No, the thing that brought Rose Tyler to Copperopolis had a name, and that name was Wilfred Mott.
Rose slipped her work-issued key into the lock of the Calaveras County Animal Clinic, and felt her heart sink into her stomach as its snicked open. In her three months of working there she had never once arrived in the morning before Wilf. As the clinic’s proprietor and sole licensed veterinary doctor, he usually arrived well before Rose and had all the blinds open and the coffee started by the time she got there. The clinic was his life’s work and he took pride that it was run efficiently. But for the last two days, he simply hadn’t shown up. Rose was getting worried.
Rose had tried everything she could think of, calling Wilf’s cell phone and home line, even going so far as to drive by his humble A-frame cottage and peek in the windows. But Wilf was no where to be found.
Dropping her keys on the counter of the teal formica reception desk she occupied most days, Rose hurried to the office phone to check the voicemail that had come in since she’d left the day before. She hoped desperately for some sort of message and excuse from Wilf, but aside from a rather put out sounding Mrs. Wilkins trying to reschedule her appointment for her cat Molly there was nothing. Rose dropped the receiver back in it’s cradle, and pulled out a pad of post-it notes to scribble on as she tried to think.
She liked Wilf. Rose liked his rough honest Northern California ways, the way he would compose naughty limericks about the dogs and tomcats that were brought into the vets office and that he would slip up sometimes and call something “hella cool”, then wink at her as if it had been what he’d intended all along. And Rose appreciated that Wilf had given her the job at the vet’s office which had brought her to the quiet town. He’d offered her a life-line, a chance to get her feet under her at a time she’d desperately needed it.
She’d been rescheduling Wilf’s appointments and trying to keep a good face on the clinic in his absence for two days now, hoping that he’d simply gone on an uncharacteristic bender, like so many of the town’s residents were wont to do, and that he would be back soon, hungover, and shamefaced for the verbal lashing she had prepared him.
It had gone too far though. Rose was beginning to get seriously concerned that something terrible had happened, and so she grabbed the phone receiver again, this time to call the police.
The woman who answered at the County Substation’s sounded tired and bored despite the din of angry voices in the background. Amidst the yelling, Rose could just make out a woman’s voice screaming about something that sounded a lot like “pick-up truck on fire” and despite her worry, she couldn’t help but shake her head in amusement. Typical.
She explained the situation briefly to the receptionist, and then rapped a pencil against her post-it pad as she waited to be transferred. When the line was picked up again the background noise was gone, and the voice was now a man’s, young sounding, and firm.
“Hello Miss, this is Officer Pitts. Dolores says you’re calling from the vet’s clinic in Copper? Can I get your name for the record?”
Rose sighed, she’d already given her name to the receptionist.
“Rose Tyler, I’m the assistant here at the Calaveras Clinic,” she clarified. The full name of the vet’s office was a mouthful, especially for such a small practice, but Wilf was the only vet in town. The officer would know what she was talking about. “I’m worried about my boss, this is the third morning he hasn’t shown up for work and it’s not like him.”
“Have you tried calling his cell?” The officer asked. Rose couldn’t help but feel he was being a bit condescending.
“Of course, and his home line. He’s not answering.”
“Alright, what did you say your boss’s name was?”
Rose hadn’t said. “Wilfred Mott. W… I… L…”
“Right, I got it.” The officer cut her off. “He lives out off Stagecoach Road?”
“Yeah, that’s him,” Rose confirmed.
“Alright,” the officer said, sounding as if the matter had been settled. “I’ll drive by later today and see if he’s around.”
“No, no,” Rose jumped in, hoping that the officer hadn’t hung up yet, he’d sounded like he was about to. “Please, I’ve already done that. This isn’t like Wilf. I’m really worried something’s happened to him.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line and then the distinct sound of a sigh before the officer spoke again. “Look, Miss Tyler, I appreciate your concern, but most of the time in these cases, it just turns out that someone forgot to call into work with an excuse. If you want to find your boss, maybe check the saloon on Main Street. Last guy we had go missing from work turned up under a barstool in Angel’s Camp. I’m betting yours will too.”
“Alright,” Rose said, dejected. She wasn’t sure exactly what she’d hoped for, but the officers calm businesslike attitude certainly wasn’t it. “But you will look for him?”
“I’ve got a case file open.” The officer said matter of factly, “We’ll keep our eyes open.”
“Alright, thanks,” Rose said, and hung up before she could hear the officer’s reply.
Not knowing what more to do, Rose got up and switched off the clinic’s neon “Open” sign. She couldn’t deal with another day of reschedules and sending people away. She turned the deadbolt on the glass door too, just in case somebody missed the sign and headed into the back of the small clinic.
It was a humble space, just two exam rooms, one of which had been converted into a storage room, with various office and medical supplies laid out neatly on the red vinyl mat of the examination table. Across from that room was a metal scale on a table for the smaller animals that came in, and another on the floor beside for the larger ones.
In the very back was Wilf’s office. Not knowing what else to do Rose headed in to poke around. It felt wrong rummaging through someone’s desk, but Wilf had never been overly particular about his privacy. Even if he had, Rose figured that going AWOL for three days more than excused the invasion.
Rose had been in the room before on many occasions. While Wilf was meticulous about the organization of the clinic as a whole, his own space was a bit more cluttered and lived in. Books, and random objects, and patient files littered his desk as if they had been strewn around in the exact order that thoughts happened to drift into his head. Rose smiled to see the small twisted metal sculpture of a gnome that always stood under an old goose-neck desk lamp, presiding over the chaos. Wilf loved fanciful things, but that sculpture was just about the ugliest object Rose had ever seen.
Rose couldn’t imagine finding anything illuminating in the mess. She’d looked briefly before and there was no note saying: Gone fishing Rose, cancel my appointments, thanks! But like many men his age, Wilf tended to avoid digital conveniences. If she could find a calendar or an address book… Rose let her thoughts trail off, focusing instead on the papers in front of her and trying to decipher Wilf’s chicken-scratch handwriting. She almost thought she had something when a lower drawer turned up a note-book sized leather bound book, but gave up hope when she saw the words handwritten in a looping scrawl on the first page.
“A Journal of Impossible Things”
She flipped to a random page and read aloud, dictating to the twisted unblinking face of the gnome on the desktop:
…The tears of a mermaid like those of many magical creatures, are known to have powerful regenerative properties, to the point where wounded pirates were known to ply the maids with stolen treasures and trinkets in exchange for just a drop of the potent liquid. If the emotion that triggers the tears is pure enough, it is even rumored that they may bestow life eternal, and it is thus that the legend of the fountain of youth began…
Rose rolled her eyes, and tossed the journal down on the desk beside the troll. Useless.
“Of course Wilf would have something like this,” she complained, addressing the gnome for lack of a more sympathetic ear. “I suppose this is your influence? You two get together at night and play D&D after I’ve gone home?”
The sculpture simply stared at her, his pinched little face seeming to grow uglier in Rose’s exasperation. She didn’t know what to do with herself. If there were any clues here they were well hidden, and she was no detective.
Rose was just about to get up and head back to the front desk to pull up and cancel Wilf’s appointments for the day when the old switchboard telephone began to ring, the light at the base of it indicating that the number had been the direct one to Wilf’s office, and not the clinic main line. It wouldn’t be a client or the officer calling back. Not to that number. Rose scrambled to get the phone off the hook, hoping against hope it was Wilf himself and only just remembering to answer with a professional greeting, in case it wasn’t.
“Wilfred Mott’s office, this is Rose speaking.”
From the other end of the line Rose could hear deep labored breathing, and for a moment was afraid the call was a prank. But then a deep, pained sounding voice echoed through the line.
“Who the hell is this? Put Wilf on the line.”
Rose crumbled up a blank sheet of paper from Wilf’s desk and squeezed it in her palm. There was something she didn’t like about this phone call, something alarming. The man on the other end’s voice was strained and almost shouting.
“Wilf isn’t here right now,” Rose said as calmly as she could manage. She felt like she’d repeated those words a hundred times in the past few days. “This is Rose, his assistant. Is there something that I can help you with?”
“You?” The man on the other end of the line seemed to bite back a curse, “You can get Wilf on the line is what you can do. Tell him it’s an emergency. Tell him something happened at the mine.”
Rose had no idea what that meant, but something told her it couldn’t be good. Copperopolis was in the heart of what had once been California gold rush territory. The countryside was literally dotted with hundreds of old ore mines, now all shuttered and abandoned. While they may be a romantic curiosity to tourists or out-of-towners, the locals pretty much only headed out to the mines if they wanted to do something they shouldn’t. Rose remembered one time a local man named Mike Gardner had thought to come in to the clinic, having nearly blown his hand off lighting an illegal M80. She didn’t much fancy having to deal with the fall out of one of Wilf’s idiot friend’s bad decisions now.
Rose could hear a scraping and a strange crackling sound over the phone line, then the man’s voice came back, sounding angrier than before.
“Damnit woman I didn’t ask you to think. Get Wilf!”
Rose squeezed the ball of paper in her hands tighter, reminding herself that boss or no, she was at work, and she needed to stay calm.
“You aren’t hearing me Sir,” she said, impressed with herself at how level her voice sounded “Wilf isn’t here, I don’t know where he is, and I haven’t been able to reach him. And this is a Vet’s office, if you’re hurt you need to go to a hospital. I can transfer you if you’d like?”
“NO!” the man shouted with what sounded like a hiss of pain, “Don’t transfer me.”
There was a pause and a low grating sound over the line that sounded very much like something heavy being dragged over gravel. Rose could practically hear the man’s mind churning as he sorted through his options.
“Look lady,” he said finally, “I won’t be able to talk like this much longer. You’re Wilf’s assistant?”
“I said I was didn’t I?” Rose snapped, this whole situation was testing her patience.
The man only grunted, but whether it was in pain or annoyance Rose could hardly tell.
“Does he trust you?”
“What?” Rose asked, not liking where things were going. She lightly tapped the worn buttons of Wilf’s old phone. She could just transfer the man to the hospital despite everything, but something stopped her, made her hear him out.
“Does he trust you,” he repeated, his voice tighter than ever. “Does Wilf trust you?”
“Yeah, I think he does.”
The voice on the other end of the line growled. “Alright, it’ll have to be good enough. I need you to come out to the old mine and bring medical supplies.”
“The old… you must be joking, there’s dozens of...”
“You won’t miss this one, just take route 4 out towards Arnold. The turnoff is on the right, just past Dorrington. The one with the gate and the no trespassing sign.”
“Dorrington? That’s an hour away. You do know this is a vet’s office right? It’s just, you don’t sound so good yourself and we only deal with animals… ”
“I know what I need.” The man snapped at her. “The mine is just a mile past the gate. Don’t forget painkillers.” He paused a moment, and Rose had to strain for the background noise to be sure he hand’t hung up. “Not aspirin, something else.”
And then he was gone, leaving Rose completely unsure as to what exactly she had just been asked to do.
It felt like insanity to leave the clinic in the middle of the day with Wilf still missing. But after a few minutes of sitting back at her reception desk, staring at the four dingy grass-mat walls of the empty veterinary waiting room, Rose felt like she might actually go insane if she stayed there. Finally with a huff of annoyance she grabbed a sheet of paper and tape from her desk and scrawled a makeshift “Closed Due to Unforeseen Circumstances” sign for the front door, adding as an afterthought the phone number for the Veterinary Hospital up in Angel’s Camp, the next town, about fifteen minutes up the highway.
That done, Rose hastily jotted down another note for Wilf, on the off chance that he returned while she was gone. This one she left on the counter of the reception desk, before ducking under it to fish out the old gym bag she kept there, and dumping out it’s contents on top of her desk chair.
The man had said to bring medical supplies, but what did that mean exactly? Supplies for a man, or a dog, or a horse even? The only clue she had to go on was that whoever, or whatever her patient was, they apparently couldn’t tolerate aspirin.
Deciding to start there, Rose went to the medical cupboard and selected a variety of non-aspirin pain medications in various dosages, and, after a moments thought tossed in a couple of vials of topical anesthetic and a handful of syringes as well. Moving on from there she tried to think of anything she possibly could that would be useful in a first aid situation, throwing in bandages, and burn cream, and even a mylar emergency blanket she dug up incase the creature had gone into shock and needed to be kept warm.
Remembering the man who’d injured himself with the M-80, Rose moved to the exam room and dug through the cabinet there until she had retrieved a few suture kits, and threw them on top of the mess of supplies in the bag, along with a bottle of iodine and a box of nitrile gloves.
Finally, feeling like she’d already wasted too much time, Rose grabbed her zip-up fleece from the back of her office chair, and headed back out the front door, sparing only a moment as she locked it to stare in disbelief at the shuttered business.
“Damn you Wilf,” Rose muttered under her breath. She really hoped he’d come back soon. Because once he did, Rose was going to kill him.