MALPRACTICE - A JEAN BELL MYSTERY, CH. 9

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Submitted Date 01/19/2020
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Losing patients was an occupational hazard of being a nurse. Sure, the point was to care for as many people as possible, but sooner or later, someone would slip away. The first patient Jean lost, the first that was directly under her care, was a woman. She'd come into the hospital about three years ago, suffering from acute pneumonia. She was an elderly lady; Mrs. Hampshire. While visiting family from England, she fell ill and both of her lungs filled with fluid. The treating physician was giving her antibiotics, but she wasn't responding to them. Her cough and fever just never seemed to let up. Despite the sickness, she was quite pleasant and cooperative. Jean would often stay after her shift and read to her. But the antibiotics just weren't working and Mrs. Hampshire got worse.

As her uncle's traveling companion, Jean was often called upon to assist with his work. She'd seen cholera patients in India, outbreaks of yellow fever in Africa, and syphilis epidemics in the West Indies. All of those diseases claimed lives. Jean had lost friends and companions to pestilence as she grew up. But, in a country where poverty and war produce a nearly constant stream of sickness and injury, people learned to live in the looming shadow of death. At home in America, in a quiet hospital bed, it was somehow quite different. When it was her responsibility to keep someone alive, Jean felt the loss more keenly.

Jean thought of Arnold Barnes as her patient. So, when she thought of him dying not because of a weak heart, or a poor diet, or even a germ, but because of a deliberate attempt on his life, it was hard not to take it personally. Whatever the reasons were and whomever the murderer was, she sincerely hoped the police would bring the person to justice. She would do what she could to help make that happen.

After she'd polished off the last of her stew and taken one more sip of her complimentary bottomless coffee, Jean gathered up her purse and coat and drove to the Newport News Sheriff's Office. Once inside, she waited patiently to speak to an officer. A middle-aged man ahead of her was haranguing the attending desk officer about his neighbor's dog. He seemed to have developed a full head of steam and didn't look to be stopping any time soon. Jean found a beat-up looking wooden chair and had a seat. The only other seat in the room was occupied by an emaciated and ragged young woman. She was holding a cigarette and staring silently at a spot on the wall a few yards away. From the look of the full ashtray on the table beside her, she'd been there for a while.

Two policemen in crisp uniforms entered the room via a set of double doors to her right. They walked past her and exited through the front door. Jean heard muffled shouting from the other side of the wall. The officer behind the desk, looking bored, was writing on a pad of paper. Presumably, he was taking down information about a Yorkshire terrier who liked to dig up tulips. The woman to her left put out her cigarette, knocking a few extinguished butts onto the floor. Then, she took a fresh cigarette out of its pack and lit it. Jean tried to concentrate on what she was going to say.

The dog-hater was at it for at least another forty minutes. The smoker was down to her last cigarette, the empty pack crumpled on the table by the ashtray. Two more officers came in, this time entering from outside the station. Between them, a man who smelled like urine struggled in a pair of handcuffs. They escorted him out through the double doors. Finally, threatening to go directly to the commissioner if the neighbor wasn't held accountable for his dog's actions, the complaining man left the building. Jean looked over at her waiting companion, but she didn't appear to be getting up. She continued to stare at the same spot on the wall.

The desk officer motioned for Jean to approach. She said, "I think this woman was here before me," and indicated the smoker with a nod of her head.

"Nevermind her," the officer said.

Only slightly puzzled, Jean walked up to the desk and said plainly, "I'd like to report a murder, please."

The officer scanned Jean up and down; an evaluating sweep to determine her level of sanity. "A murder, you say. Okay, ma'am. Who was murdered?"

She said, calmly and evenly, "I'm a nurse at Riverside Hospital. One of my patients, a couple of days ago, died in a diner."

He looked confused. "One of your patients died in a diner, not in the hospital?"

"I tried to save a man in the diner, he was taken to the hospital, where he couldn't be revived."

"Stabbing, shooting, or is the food in that joint just really bad?" He wasn't taking this as seriously as Jean hoped.

"He died of a heart attack."

"So this guy died in a diner, from a heart attack, but you think he was murdered. Excuse me if I don't quite follow."

"He showed symptoms of a heart attack when he was first brought to the hospital, but our medical examiner later found evidence of poison."

"Okay, ma'am. Give me your name and your address. I'll need the victim's name and the day he died. Then, we'll pass this info on to one of our detectives and he'll be following up with you."

She gave him the requested information and asked, "don't I need to give you a statement or the location of the hospital or something?"

"Nah. The detective will look over your information and then decide what info he wants from there. We know where the hospital is. You just let us know if you plan on taking any trips out of town. Usually, our detectives follow up in a few days."

Jean thanked the officer and with one final glance at the smoker, exited the station. In truth, she was a little disappointed. She had expected to meet with a detective for thorough questioning. Report of murder, she thought, would be treated with a bit more urgency than follow up in a few days. She supposed that as long as there wasn't a body lying in the street, bleeding, that no one at the police station was in a rush. The combination of so much coffee at the diner and the long wait to talk to the police meant that she was suddenly in a rush, however.

Across the street was a five and dime. Instead of getting into her car just to drive across the street, Jean decided to dash across the road on foot. A bell on the door jingled as she stepped inside. She made a B-line to the restroom. Once she was relieved, she remembered a few sundries she needed to pick up and made her way to the hygiene section. The shelves were lined with colorful bottles and paper-wrapped packages. They proclaimed their brand names proudly in bold letters. As she bent to reach for a bottle of Listerine, she heard the doorbell jingle and footsteps enter the store.

The proprietor, who had been attending to customers at a small counter near the front of the store said, "Detective."

The man who entered replied, "Cliff."

The footsteps continued in her direction and she stood up. The police, surely, wouldn't have sent someone into the convenience store to follow up with her. Over the top of the shelf in front of her, she could see a man in a suit and tie, wearing an overcoat and a hat. He stood about six feet tall and as he walked past, she could see his pale blue eyes and dark brown hair just peeking out from under the hat. But, he didn't seem to see her. He walked over to the candy bars, picked up a 5th Avenue and strolled back over to the counter.

Of course. I'm just across from the station. Jean realized the store must see officers and detectives every day. She relaxed and went back to her shopping. Once she had found the dish soap and Aspirin, she checked out at the counter and walked toward the door. She crossed the street again and was unlocking the door to her Cabriolet when she heard a voice behind her.

"Fancy car for a nurse, isn't it?" It was a man's voice, not threatening, but not friendly either.

She unlocked the door and stepped halfway inside before turning around to find the speaker. It was the detective from inside the store. He must have been waiting outside the station for her.

"What makes you think I'm a nurse," she asked.

"You're Miss Bell unless I'm sadly mistaken. Most ladies who work at the hospital are nurses."

"You are mistaken, detective, at least about the 'miss.' I'm a missus."

"Excuse me then, Mrs. Bell. What makes you think I'm a detective?" he asked, stepping closer.

"You were just in the store across the street. I heard the clerk call you 'detective'."

"Pretty observant. Tell me, are you always that sharp, or only when you're shopping?"

"Is there something I can do for you, detective?"

"I want to talk to you about the murder you reported, in the diner. Step into my office?" He made a sweeping motion with his arm and his unbuttoned overcoat parted just enough for her to see the glint of a badge. She stepped out of the car and shut the door. Wrapping her own coat closer around her, she folded her arms and headed back to the police station. Once inside, the detective stepped around her and led her toward the double doors. The smoking woman was still there but was no longer staring at the wall. Her eyes were closed and she was slumped onto one arm against the table, snoring.

As she followed the detective, Jean started to ask if the woman was okay, but was interrupted.

"Just leave her," a new desk attendant said.

Jean wondered if the earlier officer had gotten tired of hearing people complain about their neighbor's dogs and gone home. She turned her attention back toward the detective and followed him through the doorway into a dingy hall. A few yards down, the detective turned left through a narrow doorway. Once she was inside the room, he closed the door behind her. A set of blinds clattered against its window. He pulled on a string and the blinds closed.

"Please," the man said as he gestured to one of a pair of chairs. He himself worked his way around a large desk that took up most of the room. He took a seat in an abused-looking leather chair with a swivel and slipped the cap from a fountain pen. The movement was fluid like he'd done it a million times. Jean noticed his hands as she perched on the edge of another uncomfortable wooden seat. They were large and muscular, but weathered, calloused, and cracked. His left index finger was stained with ink.

The pen tip hovered over a half-spent pad of lined paper as the detective watched her with his pale blue eyes. He hadn't removed his hat or his overcoat but had tipped the hat back a little, exposing more of his face.

"Let's take it from the top, Mrs. Bell. When was the first time you met…" he flipped through some pages in a file folder next to him, "...Mr. Arnold Barnes?"

"This past Monday, December first," Jean answered.

The detective jotted a note before continuing. "And that's when he collapsed in the diner?"

"Yes. I'd been having lunch with my sister-in-law. We finished eating and got up to leave when the man in the next booth seemed to be in distress."

"And was this guy having lunch on his own or was there someone there with him?"

"He'd been talking to another man, arguing, I think, but that was maybe twenty minutes earlier. By the time Mr. Barnes collapsed, the other man had left."

"Did you know this other guy?"

"Not at the time, no. I didn't know either of them. But, the next day, I found out his name is Bloomfield. He works at Virginia Industrial."

The detective jotted more notes before asking, "I see. And how did you come by this information?"

Jean told him about visiting the bank with Rose. He nodded as she spoke and made the occasional squiggle with his pen.

"So, back to the diner. You said you got up to leave, Barnes collapsed, and then what?"

She recounted the incident with as much detail as she could remember, leaving out Margie's odd behavior with the wallet. More nodding from the detective. He asked for details about Jean's encounter with Mrs. Barnes later that day at the hospital. She wondered if she should include the rumors about Mrs. Barnes' carousing behavior, but decided it was best to stick to what she knew was true.

Eventually, he asked, "And when did you start to think maybe it wasn't a heart attack that killed Barnes?"

"It was our medical examiner, Dr. Kirk Davers. He found some unusual results in the patient's blood."

She tried to explain the drug interaction and physical symptoms without being too technical. Often, when she tried to tell people about her work who didn't have medical experience, their eyes just glazed over. Jean wondered how much medical knowledge the average police detective gained from their own work. When she finished, she shifted her weight on the hard wooden chair. Her behind was already sore from waiting so long next to the smoking woman.

The detective - whom she noted with some irritation hadn't introduced himself - punctuated his note with a final gesture, tossed his pen down lightly, folded his fingers together, and directed a piercing gaze at Jean.

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