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MALPRACTICE - A JEAN BELL MYSTERY
I've finally taken the plunge into writing my first "cozy" mystery. It's still a little rough around the edges and subject to change, but I wanted to open it up to the world and let it breathe. I'm hoping for feedback and constructive criticism. So without further ado...
They had been married two years when Mr. Theodore "Teddy" Bell broke the news to his wife, Jean. Back when she'd been Jean Clark, the two met at a church picnic. She'd been reaching for a deviled egg and he was putting a spoon back in the potato salad when their elbows collided. The slippery egg shot out of Jean's grasp and landed face down in the grass. Frowning, she had turned to face the owner of the offending elbow and was suddenly at a loss for words. He was just about four inches taller than her, so she had to look up to take in his neatly-trimmed dark brown hair and sideways grin. His eyebrows had been arched in surprise, mirroring her own startled expression. Teddy had apologized in a voice as rich as smooth as the chocolate silk pie next to the mashed potatoes. The apology, however, sounded far away. Jean had already drowned in the deep blue pools of his eyes.
She was staring into that same set of blue eyes as he sat across the dinner table, dropping the news that hit her like a depth charge; he had decided to join the U.S. Navy. The feeling of being deep underwater came back to her then because for a moment she couldn't breathe. His words were as unclear as if they'd had to fight their way through the waves. Teddy was saying something about the butcher shop he'd inherited from his father. It wasn't bringing in business like it used to. It was threatening to sink their finances. If they wanted to have children someday, he told her, he would have to find a better way to provide for the family. His solution was to enlist.
She stood up from the table and crossed the room to pour herself a brandy. Jean emptied two fingers into the crystal glass and then emptied the glass in one swallow. The liquor was partly a way for her to steady herself and partly an excuse to turn her face away to hide the tears she was fighting back. As the amber liquid warmed her throat, she turned the glass around in her hand. She ran her thumb over the etched letters that read, "Teddy and Jean, 1939." The four-piece drinking set had been a wedding gift from an aunt on his side of the family. With some effort, she focused her mind back on his voice.
Teddy was talking about the Naval training program and how long it would be before he'd earn his first paycheck. She wiped away a tear that had managed to escape the corner of her eye before turning back toward him. He was facing her empty chair but his gaze was unfocused, obviously concentrating on stating his case. Jean swallowed the lump in her throat and went back to the table. His speech started to make some sense, although she'd been surprised to hear about their financial situation. He'd never hinted that they were having trouble before. He seemed to notice she was back and lifted his eyes to hers before delivering another blow; the Navy's boot camp was in Illinois, near Chicago, and he'd be leaving in two weeks.
Jean's head was swimming but not from the drink. Had she been holding her breath? For a moment, she considered going for another glass of brandy, but she doubted she could rely on her legs to carry her that far. It took a moment before she noticed her husband had stopped talking. She lifted her head to find him staring at her. He had apparently been waiting for a response. She tried to collect herself. After the shock and numbness wore off, there had been anger. How could he have made this decision without her? Why hadn't he told her about the failing butcher's shop sooner? How could he abandon her this way? Then, when she had finally accepted that his mind couldn't be changed, she told herself to be strong.
The next two weeks had been hard. Jean had been a habitual newspaper reader for years and she was well aware of the rising tensions in Europe. It seemed like a bad time to join the military. Although Teddy assured her that the United States would never get involved, she had her doubts. Each morning, Jean said a silent prayer, telling herself to cherish the moments when she could watch him, still asleep in bed. During the day, she kept busy so anxiety and sadness wouldn't overtake her. While she still needed to keep up with her nursing duties at the hospital, she was able to persuade the director to let her take shorter shifts temporarily. They used most of the extra time together dealing with business matters. Teddy and Jean weren't the only ones with a stake in the butcher's shop. There was also Teddy's mother, Rose, and his sister, Margaret (Margie for short) who were partially supported by and helped run the business. Nobody in town was buying property or much of anything really. Two shops on the same block had already closed earlier that month. Since Jean was employed and Teddy would be sending money home, they didn't have to worry too much about their own house. Rose and Margie, on the other hand, would need to downsize from their comfortable cottage and move into an apartment.
Although they were difficult, those two weeks until her husband left for boot camp went by in a flash. It hadn't seemed like they'd had an intimate moment alone together or even time for Jean to catch her breath. Before she knew it, she was waving goodbye to Teddy as he crossed the tarmac and climbed the steps into the khaki green plane. She watched and waved her handkerchief until the aircraft was out of sight. Then she used the delicate square of cloth to dry her eyes before heading back to the car. On the way home, dreading pulling into the drive at an empty house, she had turned into the local diner instead and used the pay phone to call her sister-in-law. It was the first of what became their regular lunch get-togethers.
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