MALPRACTICE - A JEAN BELL MYSTERY CH. 18

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Submitted Date 03/13/2020
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The bottle was about as tall as her thumb and shaped like a pregnant rectangle. A bright red label was affixed to its rounded front surface. The label was stamped with a black pictogram Jean thought was vaguely familiar. She picked it up and removed its tiny cork. The few drops of liquid still inside were either yellow or clear, it was hard to tell with the amber glass behind it. She sniffed the contents carefully. The liquid smelled strongly of pine. The odor took her back to a time years ago, just before she'd turned eighteen. She was standing in a small shop in San Fransisco, an apothecary of sorts, but run by a Chinese couple. There was a wall of small drawers behind the counter, next to shelves of jars, each containing a dried plant or a shriveled bit of animal. She remembered exotic ingredients like rhino horn and tortoise shell.

Jean corked the bottle and took a closer look at the label. There were no English words on it and she'd never picked up enough Mandarin to read. Still, there was something very familiar about it. She decided to drop the little bottle into her purse and head back downstairs. Before reaching for the doorknob, she put her ear to the door to check if the hallway was empty. It sounded like Judy was still on the phone, but her voice was muffled. The coast was clear. She opened the door and crept swiftly back the way she'd come.

Barbara and Ruth were chatting pleasantly about the particular joys of raising little boys. Jack was being bounced on his mother's hip, but it wasn't doing much to stop the boy's fussing. Ruth seemed relieved to see Jean again. The three of them said their goodbyes and Barbara showed them out. They were in the process of settling into the Cabriolet when the front door of the Barnes house flew open. If looks could kill, the look on Judy's face would have put the whole block six feet under.

"You!" Judy shouted as she stormed up to the driver's side window. "You have something of mine. Give it back."

Jean winced as if she'd been struck. Rolling down the window, she said, "I'm sorry, Judy. Did you say you were missing something?"

"Don't play coy with me. I know you took it. Give me back my bottle now." She held out her hand.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean. Ruth and I were just about to head back and put Jack down for his nap."

"Listen to me. You took a small amber bottle from the bathroom. It's mine. I don't know if you're in the habit of stealing other people's things, but if you don't give it back to me right now, so help me I'll climb into that car and take it off you."

Jean tried to smile. "Well, I'll check my purse. I'm sure I don't know what you mean though."

She pulled her handbag out from behind the driver's seat and opened it. Undoing the clasp, she rummaged around inside, pretending to search for the missing bottle while she bought herself some time to think. Barbara Barnes's sister had never appeared so animated. She could practically feel the heat coming off her. If Jean didn't think of something quickly, the woman was going to blow her top. Jack started to cry again.

Bottle in hand, she used her thumbnail to pry loose the red label. It slipped off easily and she pulled the bare amber container from her purse.

"Oh, dear. Would you look at that," she said innocently, "I suppose I have it after all. It looks just like my perfume bottle. I must have picked it up by mistake. I'm so sorry."

Jean handed the bottle to Judy through the window. Judy snatched it from her and said, "Listen, you. You stay away from here, do you hear me? Don't come to the house and don't talk to my sister. She's got enough to worry about. If I see you here again, I'm going to call the police. Are we clear?"

"I'm so sorry, Judy," Jean repeated. "I honestly didn't mean to upset you."

Judy stood for a moment, pressing her lips together so tightly that her mouth was just a flat crease in her face. Then, she turned on her heel and stormed off again. She went inside the house and slammed the door. Stunned, Jean turned to face Ruth. Ruth seemed just as shocked as she was.

"My, that was quite a fuss. What a tiny little thing to get upset over. I've never seen Judy act like that. Granted, I haven't spent much time around her, but that was as much emotion as I've ever seen from the woman."

"I'm sorry she banned us from the house on account of my mistake. I hope Barbara won't be too upset."

"I'd give it a few days. She'll cool off or Barbara will talk some sense into her. It was an honest mistake. What was in that bottle anyway?"

"I'm not certain. I must have thought it was my perfume."

The two women shrugged at each other and Jean put the car into reverse. She backed down the driveway and into the deserted lane. They didn't talk much on the way home as Ruth was mainly occupied with entertaining her fussy son. She was pointing out different colored to cars to him, trying to get him to join in the game. Jean was happy to be left to her thoughts. As she steered their way home, she tried to remember the way the liquid in the bottle smelled. She clung to the memory of the San Fransisco apothecary and tried to grasp the connection.

They were nearly home when it started to rain. It was a cold, icy rain that came down in torrents. Jean dropped Ruth and Jack off as close to their door as she could bring the Cabriolet. Then, she backed out of their drive and pulled into her own. She tried to use her purse to shield herself from the downpour, but it was useless. By the time she made it inside, she was soaked to the bone. It was also too late to save her laundry from the storm. All of the hard work from that morning had gone to waste. Jean hoped at least one of her uniforms was clean enough to wear.

After towel drying her hair and changing into a long-sleeved house dress, she fixed herself a cup of hot tea and sat in the den for a while, trying to process her visit to the Barnes house. She picked her purse up from the seat next to her and looked inside for the red label. It had a bit of dried adhesive on the back of it, but it hadn't torn when it came off the bottle. Examining it closely, she tried to recall what the pictograms meant. Could this have been what Judy was talking to her mother about on the phone? The bottle had been nearly empty. Jean sniffed the label. It smelled of pine, just like the liquid.

For a minute, she pondered going into the attic to try and find her old notebooks. As a teen, she'd filled page after page with notes about her journeys. Although her uncle was a kind man and an eager teacher, he was no substitute for friends her own age. But she was short on those since they moved so often. Her only confidants were her journals. They held the stories of her girlhood. Not only that but extensive notes on medicines and remedies from places scattered about the globe. But they were stored away in boxes now, ten feet or so above her head. Even if she had, by some chance, written about that old medicine shop, Jean doubted she'd copied the Mandarin characters for anything down. At best, phonetic spellings were all she could hope for. If she could only remember what that herb with the piney odor was.

**photo: Ensign Jane Kendeigh, Flight Nurse. National Museum of the US Navy. Public domain.

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