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MALPRACTICE - A JEAN BELL MYSTERY CH. 16
The four women were in the sitting room, positioned across a walnut coffee table from each other. The low table featured dolphin feet, a thumb molded edge, and held a tea service and Jean's coffee cake, or what was left of it. Jean, Ruth, Barbara, and her sister all balanced small plates of cake on their knees. Little Jack was stuffing his piece into his mouth barehanded, getting crumbs all over himself and the floor in the process. After bringing in the tea, Barbara's sister had perched herself on the edge of a mid-Victorian carved mahogany chair. Jean and Ruth sat together on a carved walnut sofa with tufted upholstery. Ruth leaned over one of the scrolled arms and grabbed Jack's arm as he was trying to run off.
After she'd succeeded in getting him to sit down and confine his mess to just one area of the rug, Ruth addressed the two sisters.
"I'm so glad you were home. How have you been, Barb? We didn't get a chance to talk at the service. Have the other girls been in touch?"
"Yes, they have as a matter of fact." Mrs. Barnes replied, "Alice came by only yesterday. She and Mr. Bartholomew have been so helpful with all of the financials." She turned to her sister and said, "I think we saw Debbie two days ago, didn't we, Judy?"
The blonde said, "Yes, she brought that casserole, remember?"
Barbara nodded. "That's right. It was horrible, just between you and me. Judy and I could barely stomach it."
As they continued polite small talk, Jean took note of her surroundings. Near the window, three large ferns sat on pedestals in the sunlight. A curio cabinet stood against the wall behind the sisters. It seemed to be filled with brass figurines. To their left, near the doorway, a sideboard held wax flower arrangements under glass domes and a pair of candlesticks fitted with unused candles. There was a small collection of framed artworks, but most of the walls were paneled in dark oak and held no decorations. Above them, a small chandelier hovered. The light streaming in from the windows was strong enough that the lights hadn't been turned on. Jean could see plenty of knickknacks around, some of which she was sure were valuable.
"You have such a lovely home, Barbara," Jean offered.
"Thank you. Most of this belonged to Arnold's parents. When they passed on, we inherited the house and everything in it. This room is pretty much the way it was when we first married. He was sentimental that way, didn't want to change a thing."
"Of course, the kitchen and the bathrooms have all been modernized," Judy added. She was looking sidelong at little Jack, who was starting to smoosh cake into the carpet.
Ruth put down her tea and tried to use a napkin to clean up the mess. "No, no, Jack," she scolded.
Looking back up, she said, "Barb, where's Nathan? I was hoping he and Jack could play. He's probably bored sitting with us ladies."
Barbara's son, Nathan, was on the floor above, in the care of his nanny. Judy offered to lead the way and Ruth took Jack's hand. As the trio ascended the staircase, Jean saw a chance to ease in a few pointed questions while she and the widow were alone.
"I can't imagine living in a house like this. I've got quite a modest little single level. This place must cost loads just in upkeep alone."
"Well, as I said," Barbara explained, "we inherited the house. We were able to live off the sum his parents left for a while, but it didn't last. Now, what Arnold earns…earned…from his job at the bank is enough."
"If you don't mind my asking, what are you going to do now? Are you thinking of working?"
"Oh, goodness no. I couldn't stand being a secretary like Judy and I really don't have any skills anyway. But Nathan and I will be okay. Arnold had an insurance policy."
"I'm sure he had savings, too, being a banking man."
"We hit a rough patch just before Nathan was born. It pretty much cleaned us out, to be honest. We were getting in a bit over our heads, but Arnold saw us through it. He was such a good father." At this, the widow started to tear up.
"I'm so sorry, Barbara. I really did do my best for him." Jean leaned forward and pat the woman's knee.
Barbara took a steadying breath. "Thank you, Jean. It was kind of you to come to his aid."
"I try to help where I can. It's part of being a nurse."
"That's right, you work at Riverview. You're the nurse who walked me out of Alistair's office."
"I am. Do you know Dr. Carnegie well?"
"He's not my doctor, I see Langley, but we did go to the same high school. In fact, he was here just the other day. We've had so many visitors in the past week I can barely keep track of them all." She paused, looking mildly concerned, then continued, "You know it's strange. He was acting really strange when he came by."
"Strange?" Jean prompted.
"Yes. He's always been sweet on me, you know. I even dated him once. But, we never really hit it off and of course, I fell in love with Arnold. Well, he came by the other day and he said the usual things about being sorry for my loss and asked if was I doing okay…and then Judy left the room for something and he just got really intense all of a sudden."
"Yes. He said he knew what I'd done to Arnold, said he understood and that he was looking out for me. At first, I didn't know what he was talking about. I told him as much. He said not to worry, that I could trust him with anything. Well, then I realized what he was implying. He was actually suggesting I had something to do with Arnold's death! Can you imagine? Of course, I kicked him out right then and there. Well, he must have been sore about it because he sent the police around to talk to me just yesterday."
"That is strange," Jean confirmed. "You said the police were here yesterday too?"
"Yes, they were. They asked if I was on a diet, of all things. I thought that was an odd question."
"A diet? And what did you say?"
"Well, I was on a diet up until Arnold died. But, I don't see the point of minding my figure now. Besides, I've always found it hard to stay away from sweets when I'm feeling melancholy. I gave the rest of my pills to Judy."
"You gave them to your sister?" Jean asked.
"Yes, she was dieting too. I think it was just to be supportive, to be honest. She's always been the slim one. Well, we were taking the same diet pills Langley prescribed, so I just gave her the rest of mine."
"It seems strange that they would bother you just to ask about your eating habits. Did they say anything else?"
"They said they were just asking routine questions, but I don't believe them. They asked me where I was that day. I was home, I told them, with Nathan and the nanny. I fixed Arnold his breakfast — his usual eggs on toast — and saw him off to work."
"Did you have coffee with breakfast?" Jean asked.
"Coffee? That's odd; the detective asked me the same question. Yes, I always make coffee in the morning. That's not unusual, is it? Lots of people drink coffee in the morning." Barbara gave Jean a concerned expression.
"No, not at all. I have coffee every morning." Jean replied.
"Well, the police seemed very concerned with what he ate for breakfast. Eggs, toast, and sometimes bacon. That's what I've been feeding him since we married. Oh, maybe I've done oatmeal or muffins or something now and again, but his favorite was eggs on toast. I didn't pack him a lunch. He usually eats with his business partners somewhere. I make him breakfast…made his breakfast and dinner every day and that's it. Honestly, if I'd poisoned him, wouldn't he have died at home and not in that stupid diner?"
"Well, some poisons take a while to act or they only become dangerous when they're mixed with other things. Did Arnold have any allergies maybe?" said Jean.
"No allergies. He was healthy as an ox, my Arnold."
Judy and Ruth, having deposited Jack in the care of Nathan's nanny, came back down the stairs. Apologizing to the sisters for the mess, Ruth finished picking up the trail of crumbs Jack left behind. Judy gladly furnished her with a brush and pan from the hallway closet.
"Does Judy live with you, Barb?" Jean asked.
"She's staying with me for now, but she has her own apartment. It's closer to the bank. Judy only came to stay after she met me at the hospital. I don't know what I'd do without her."
"Talking about me?" Judy asked as she reclaimed her position in the mahogany chair.
"Jean was asking If you lived with me in the house," Barb explained.
"Oh, no," said Judy, "It's far too long to travel to the bank and the bus doesn't come through this neighborhood much. I've got my own place downtown."
"It was quite an adjustment moving away from my sister when I married Arnold. You see, we were always inseparable, going to the same school, hanging out with the same crowd. She was my maid of honor. Before the wedding, we were hardly ever apart except for one semester."
"I went to study abroad," Judy explained, "the first part of my senior year in high school."
"She went to Switzerland," Barb cut in, "while I was stuck here in Virginia. I've never forgiven our parents for that. Nearly a whole year without her!"
"Our parents felt that Barbara wasn't old enough yet. It's such a lovely country. I miss it sometimes. Of course, I don't want to be in Europe these days, even if Switzerland is neutral."
Conversation then turned to the conflict overseas. They marveled at the sheer number of troops the Germans had sent into Russia only a handful of months before. Earlier in the week, the Russians had managed to turn away German forces just as they approached Moscow. If it hadn't been for the winter weather, Jean speculated, the Russian capital might well be in Axis hands. Everyone agreed that the loss of life on both sides was unimaginable. Ruth expressed her relief at being so far away from the events raging across the ocean.
"It doesn't seem quite fair," Barbara said, "that Arnold should die so suddenly here while so many men are dying in the war already."
Jean said, "I'm afraid we're going to lose many more before it's over."
Judy and Ruth solemnly nodded their agreement. There was a moment of silence as the four of them contemplated the future of the war. Barbara cut herself another piece of cake. Jean refilled her cup from the teapot on the table.
Ruth broke the silence first, saying, "Well, let's not think too deeply on the subject. With any luck, it'll all be over soon. Those men have gone on to a better place now."
The other three murmured their agreement and Ruth engaged Barbara over the Rotary Club happenings. Jean listened with one ear and smiled pleasantly at Judy. The woman smiled back at her politely, but there was no friendliness in it. It was hard to imagine her carousing drunkenly around town with Barbara. She seemed rather tense and prudish but did appear to be genuinely concerned about her younger sister. Jean wondered how much she knew about
her brother-in-law's double life as a blackmailer. Since she worked at the bank, did she have anything to do with the financial arrangements?
Before she could stop herself, Jean blurted out, "Do you know a Mr. Bloomfield?"
*Photo: Left to right: LTJG Agnes Carey NC USNR, LTJG Josephine Carey NC USNR, and LTJG Lillian Carey NC, USNR from the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, public domain.
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