MALPRACTICE - A JEAN BELL MYSTERY CH. 10

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Submitted Date 01/25/2020
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"Mrs. Bell, you've just told me you suspect a man was murdered with coffee and diet pills. Do you have any idea how many people in this city are on diet pills? Christ, my own mother is taking them. And don't even get me started on how many coffee drinkers we have in Newport." He paused and lowered his head toward his folded hands. Keeping his fingers clasped together, he extended both thumbs and used them to massage his temples. Lifting his head up again, he continued. "Do you know who might've had reason to want this man dead? Do you have any evidence you can give us? I'll be honest. You haven't given me much to go on here, Mrs. Bell."

Although she appreciated not being dismissed out of hand, she also didn't realize she'd be expected to piece the whole story together on her own. She'd done what she set out to do and figured the police would take it from there.

"Isn't that what you do, detective…detect?"

He just looked at her, the corner of his mouth twitching. She sat and stared back at him, waiting for him to reply. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.

"Sure, Mrs. Bell. We can get a copy of Mr. Barnes's records from Riverside, make some inquiries around town, things like that, but I'm going to tell you right now that I don't think this case is going anywhere."

"I'm not going to tell you how to do your job, detective. I'm only doing my civic duty. A man was murdered and I came to you. I don't see how there's much more I can do."

"Fair enough, Mrs. Bell, fair enough. You just let us know if you find out anything else." He stood and opened a shallow drawer in the desk. From inside, he plucked a white business card. He pushed the drawer back in with the front of his thigh as he leaned forward to hand the card to Jean. She stood and took it from him before he escorted her back through the office doorway. They went back down the dingy hallway and passed the smokey waiting room. It wasn't until she was sitting in her car that she realized she was still holding the detective's business card. By the faint light of the streetlamp, she read Det. Dane Richards, Newport News Police Department. The city seal, the police station address, and the detective's direct number were included.

Well, Detective Richards, she thought, don't expect me to do your job for you. She put the card into her purse and started the engine. The drive home was easy; there was hardly any traffic and she found herself at her front door twenty minutes after leaving the station. A folded piece of paper was stuck between the door and the door frame and she removed it as she let herself in. When she unfolded the note, Jean immediately recognized Ruth's rounded letters and smooth hand:

The service starts at nine, but if you want to come an hour early, I can go over what we need you to do. - Ruth.

Jean set down the note, deposited her purse on the couch, and headed to her bedroom to change. Once she was out of her uniform and into a comfortable house dress, she went to the kitchen and put the kettle on. She couldn't remember if she'd picked up the paper that morning. Come to think of it, she didn't remember bringing in the milk either. It had been a long day. With a sigh, she sat and picked up Ruth's note again. She hadn't been to a funeral since Teddy's father had passed. Thankfully, she still had the black dress she wore then. It might be slightly out of fashion, but she was sure it still fit.

The kettle whistled and the phone rang at the same time. Jean jumped up, lifted the receiver, wedged it between her head and her shoulder, and rushed to the stove. She said hello, but couldn't hear the response until the kettle settled down.

"I'm sorry," she said, "can you repeat that?"

"Jean, it's me." It was Margie's voice.

"Oh, hi! Sorry, I had the kettle on. How are you?"

"I'm just fine, although mom's still fretting about the house."

"I know it's not easy for her. You'll let me know if you need anything?" Jean offered.

"You know how mom is. We'll make it through and you've already done so much. Thanks for driving mom the other day," Margie replied.

As she poured hot water over a teabag, Jean told her sister-in-law about seeing the man from the diner when she took Rose to the bank. At first, Margie didn't remember seeing anyone but Barnes. But, settling into one of the kitchen chairs, Jean reminded her that Margie had jokingly suggested asking the two men to dance. As soon as she mentioned the dance, Margie was off and running.

"Oh, I can't wait, Jean. Do you know what you're going to wear? Are you going to drive down? Where do you want to meet up? A couple of guys from the Daily Press will be there to cover the whole thing. I hope it's not too cold."

She asked about ten more questions, rapid-fire, before Jean could finish her first sip of tea.

"Yes, yes, I don't know…no, yes, yes…wait, what else did you ask? You're really excited about this dance. I might just slow you down."

"Don't you back out on me now," Margie warned. "You're my moral support. I'm hoping Freddy Matheson will ask me to dance."

She went on to describe the young man who worked in her building. It wasn't the first time Margie had mentioned him, but Jean listened again, patiently sipping from her steaming mug. The two women continued to chat until Jean couldn't keep her eyes open any longer. She said goodnight to Margie and changed for bed.

 

The next morning, Jean was roused slowly by a howling wind. The trees outside her window were tapping the pane as if they wanted to come in and shelter from the weather. She yawned and slid her feet into a comfortable pair of slippers. Picking up a photo of Teddy from the nightstand, Jean transferred a kiss via fingertip from her lips to his. She set the picture down again and reached for her robe. Bleary-eyed, she collected the newspaper from her porch and shuffled into the kitchen. Before long, she'd managed a cup of coffee and two pieces of buttered toast with jam for breakfast. The clock on the wall told her she had an hour to get ready and drive out to Graceful Exit if she was going to be there by eight o'clock.

The black dress was a little looser than she remembered. Her eating habits had changed since her husband had shipped out. Jean thought maybe that and stress made her drop a few pounds. She made a mental note to pay more attention to her diet. Hiking up her hem so she could kneel on the floor without crushing her dress, she searched under the bed for a pair of heels. She managed to hook one and pull it toward her, but the matching shoe was just out of reach.

Retrieving a broom from the hall closet, she knelt again and used it to sweep the shoe out from under the bed. It came rolling forward, a dust bunny clinging to the toe. Something else followed it out; a piece of crumpled paper. She picked up the shoe, blew the dust bunny away, and sat on the bed to put both shoes on her feet. Jean transferred her wallet, her compact, a lipstick, and keys into a black purse. On her way out of the room, her foot brushed against the paper ball and it went rolling back under the bed.

She pulled the Cabriolet up the horseshoe-shaped drive in front of Ruth and Tom Dorman's family funeral home. It was an impressive structure; two levels high with white columns flanking a set of tall wooden double doors. A gnarled oak tree off the left corner looked like it had been growing there since before the Civil War. A gray hearse was parked behind a white delivery truck near the front doors. The truck's back doors stood open and two men dressed in white carried floral arrangements into the building. She drove slowly past, but didn't see any sign of her neighbors. Not finding an appropriate parking spot, Jean drove around the horseshoe bend and back down the drive. Eventually, she wound her way around the back of the building to a small lot and parked.

When she approached, she saw a short staircase leading down from street level to a small closed door. It looked like it hadn't been used in a while, so Jean continued along a walkway that curved toward the front of the building. She'd only made it halfway around, however, before Ruth came out through a side door, painted the same gray and white as the rest of the building and the matching hearse.

"Oh, there you are, Jean! You must have gotten my note. I'm so glad you could make it over early. Come in this way and help me with the flowers," she said, beckoning Jean toward her.

Jean followed Ruth into a hallway lined with thick, plush carpet the color of caramel. The close walls were painted burgundy. As they reached the end of the hall, they emerged into what Ruth called the "consulting room". There was a small desk, a bookshelf lined with what looked like photo albums, and three chairs with gold scrollwork and caramel-colored upholstery that matched the carpet. The two women continued past the chairs and out of the room. The next room was wide and open. A pair of double doors were ajar, letting in a cold wind. Jean could see the curved drive through the doorway and about twenty ornate flower arrangements leaning on their tripods inside.

Ruth crossed the room and shut the door. Indicating the flower arrangements, she said, "grab one of these and follow me."

Jean did as she was told and soon found herself in a moderately sized room decorated in the same burgundy and caramel as the others. Rows of chairs were arranged to face a casket at the front of the room. Although the casket was closed, Jean knew it held the body of Arnold Barnes.

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