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MALPRACTICE - A JEAN BELL MYSTERY CH. 12
The basins of catered food had been decimated and the dessert table had been well picked over by the time the crowd started to thin. The red-haired woman, Arnold Barnes's brother, and their small brood had left, as had Mrs. Barnes and her sister. Jean, Ruth, Alice, and Elizabeth formed an assembly line in the kitchen and got to work on the dishes. Jean was surprised to see Alice, the wife of a wealthy banker, roll up her sleeves and work as hard as the rest of them. As they scrubbed and rinsed and dried, they talked and Jean soon realized that this flock of wives was probably the grapevine that brought Ruth such timely information. Although she was a little disappointed her discreet observation of the family hadn't revealed much, perhaps she'd been missing the real fount of knowledge.
As Elizabeth handed her a wet pie plate, Jean said, "I do feel bad for Mrs. Barnes. She's got to provide for that child on her own now."
"Oh, don't worry about her," Alice said. "Arnold's finances will keep them afloat, not to mention his life insurance benefits. Although, for a while there, they were in dire straits."
Jean dried the plate and handed it to Ruth, who stacked it back in the box they'd brought from Graceful Exits. She said, "Oh?" feigning ignorance.
"Well," Ruth chimed in, "Arnold was a gambler. Sure, he did well at the bank, but he spent nearly all of it on the horses. Then, when Barbara found out she was pregnant and all, he stopped. You wouldn't have thought a man could just quit like that, but he did. Just stopped altogether."
Elizabeth, rinsing another dish, added, "Of course, he still owed money all over town. Barb said she was afraid something terrible would happen when they came to collect. But, one by one, they all stopped bothering Arnold. He must have figured something out."
They all got quiet when Debbie walked in with another stack of dirty dishes. She said playfully, "Oh my, I hope you weren't talking about me."
The other ladies laughed. "No, Debbie," Ruth assured her, "we were telling Jean about Arnold and his little problem."
"Oh, thank God that's over with," Debbie said, "I don't know what they'd do if he passed away and still owed all that money."
Alice, in a voice barely perceptible over the rush of the faucet, said, "I'm sure Alistair would have stepped in. Who's to say he won't now anyway?"
Elizabeth gasped, "Alice!"
"What?" Alice defended, "We're all thinking it. You know he'll be all over her now that Arnold is gone."
"I surely hope not. What a creep," was Debbie's reply.
Despite the steam from the hot sink, Jean got a chill. "You don't mean…Alistair Carnegie, do you? Dr. Carnegie?"
"Oops. I forgot to mention, ladies," Ruth cut in, "Jean is a nurse at Riverside."
Alice, Elizabeth, and Debbie were all suddenly mute. It was Jean's turn to feel out of place.
And then, Alice broke the awkward silence. "Well then, she probably already knows what a lech he is."
Jean didn't quite know how to respond. Alice was right, of course, but it would be terribly unprofessional of her to admit it to a crowd of women she barely knew. Thankfully, she was rescued by Ruth, who said, "I'm sure Jean doesn't want to talk about work right now. Why don't we finish these dishes off and get out of here? It's been a long morning."
The light chatter resumed, but most of it revolved around Ruth's son, Jack. Ruth and Debbie compared notes on mothering two-year-olds. Not having much to add to the conversation on that topic, Jean let her mind wander as they folded table cloths and put away the flowers. What was the connection between Barnes and Carnegie? Did Arnold Barnes suddenly stop gambling or just appear to stop? If he really did stop, how had he paid his debts? If he hadn't, then had someone come to collect a final payment?
One of her questions, at least, was answered on the ride home from the Rotary Club hall.
"Thank you for coming to my rescue, Ruth."
"Not at all. I'm sorry we put you in such an awkward position. I'm sure you don't want to talk about your job and all."
"It's true I shouldn't gossip about the hospital," Jean said. Then, she added, "But it's also true that Dr. Carnegie is a lecherous creep."
"Oh, everyone already knows that, Jean. He's been a lech since high school."
"That's right. Not everyone travels the globe when they're in high school, do they?"
Ruth laughed lightly. "Some of us stay in one place pretty much all our lives. Tom and I both grew up here. Debbie and Elizabeth too. In fact, all of us, except Alice, went to school together. Alastair has been after Barbara since junior year. She relented, once, and they dated for a semester. That's when Barbara realized he was a creep and all. Broke things off with him and never looked back. He never gave up on her though. Of course, being the lech that he is, he dated loads of other women. But, he never let Barbara go. He was devastated when she got engaged to Arnold."
"They must have really been in love, Barbara and Arnold, I mean," Jean prompted.
"I didn't know Barbara well until Tom joined the Rotary. I saw her around and all, but we weren't exactly friends. Since then, though, I've never heard her say a bad thing about him, except for his gambling. When she got pregnant with Nathan, it seemed to snap him out of it, make him more responsible. After that, I don't know that they had any problems."
Jean parked in her own driveway and helped Ruth carry the boxes next door to the Dormans' house. She decided to chance asking Ruth another question.
"Was Barbara…is she on a diet?"
Ruth put down the box of sugar and coffee she was carrying and looked at Jean. "That's an odd question," she said.
Jean was quick with a reply, "It's just that she looked thinner today than when I saw her in the hospital. I only wondered if she'd been trying to lose weight or if it was grief taking its toll."
"Right. Yes, she did look thinner. I don't know for sure, but I think she and her sister both are watching their weight. Barbara put on a few pounds with Nathan. I think her sister, Judy, joined her for moral support. Who knows? As I said, I've been out of the loop lately."
After everything had been brought in from the car, Jean excused herself so she could get ready for work. It had, like Ruth said, been a long morning. Jean now had more questions than she had answers. The last thing she expected was to hear about Dr. Carnegie's personal life. Jean was always happy to imagine that the man simply evaporated when not at Riverside. But, it seemed, Newport News was a smaller town than she thought.
*Image is of Lieutenant Junior Grade Goldie Aimee O'Haver, NC, USNR, public domain, from Women of WWII website (http://womenofwwii.com)
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