MALPRACTICE - A JEAN BELL MYSTERY CH. 11

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Submitted Date 01/29/2020
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Jean offered a gentle smile to the parade of mourners streaming through the door to Graceful Exits. The wind that had woken her that morning was still fierce, buffeting black overcoats and threatening to lift skirt hems. She gripped the stack of prayer cards she held firmly so they wouldn't be scattered. Giving one to each person, she directed them through the foyer toward the viewing room, where she and Ruth had positioned the expensive flower arrangements carefully around the casket. Ruth stood at the other end of the foyer, greeting friends and relatives of the deceased. A pale, elderly woman asked her for directions to the powder room. Ruth pointed across the room to a little hallway opposite the one she and Jean had come through earlier that morning.

One of the first people to arrive was Mr. Barnes's widow. Her eye makeup and lipstick were blurred only slightly, but she held a handkerchief dotted with brown and rose smudges. She'd foregone the printed floral dress in favor of a simple black shift. Around her shoulder was the arm of another woman in a similar dress. Seeing them both together, Jean recognized Mrs. Barnes's companion as her sister, the one who had waited in the hospital for her. The matching chins marked them as a pair. But, she suddenly realized, she'd seen Mrs. Barnes's blonde sister somewhere else; the Virginia Industrial Loan Corporation. She was the receptionist Jean recognized but couldn't place when she'd taken Rose to the bank.

As the crowd began to settle into their seats, Ruth motioned for Jean to join her near the viewing room. Together, they shut the double doors that blocked the mourners off from the cold. After shutting the heavy front entry doors too, they went through the doorway that lead to the restrooms. Across a narrow hall from a door that read Ladies and another that said Gentlemen, Ruth opened a third door that lead to a plain white room with a tile floor. In the center was a tall table holding a stack of table cloths and a box of dishes. Against a wall to their left was a counter with a sink in it, built next to a tall refrigerator. Numerous cabinets and hutches lined the simple room. As Jean watched, Ruth packed a basket with two bottles of cold milk from the fridge, a bag of ground coffee, a box of tea, and a bag of sugar.

"Now, I hope I can impose on you a bit more, Jean. I need to take these dishes and all down to the Rotary Club hall, the one by that fancy seafood restaurant. You know it?"

Jean nodded. She drove past it nearly every day since it sat between her house and the hospital.

"Tom forgot this morning, between dropping Jack off at his grandma's and opening the shop for the floral delivery."

"Sure, Ruth. Are you coming with me?"

"Yes. I still need to get some things set up for the wake. Tom's got the car here and I'm afraid I can't leave him stranded. Do you mind driving?"

Ruth apologized, repeating that the funeral home was short-staffed at the moment. As she put a few more things into the basket with the coffee and tea, Jean went to pull her car around to the front. Although she hadn't planned on staying past an hour or so, she didn't mind the additional task. The brief interaction with them this morning hadn't quite satisfied Jean's curiosity about the Barnes family. Helping out at the wake would give her more of a chance to observe without being obviously nosey. She only hoped she'd be home in time to fix dinner and take a short nap before her night shift at the hospital.

"Are we allowed in?" Jean asked Ruth on their short drive.

It took Ruth a moment to respond, "Oh! You mean the Rotary Club. Yes, it's fine. It's only the official meetings we can't attend. Unofficial gatherings like this are open to the families, not just the men. I thought you knew that, but then again, Teddy wasn't part of the Club, was he?"

"No, he isn't," Jean replied, emphasizing the present tense.

"Oh, my, of course. Sorry, Jean, I guess it's a hazard of being in the funeral trade. Now, I remember. You've never been to our bridge club, either. I haven't been, of course, since I had Jack and all, but a group of us ladies used to get together while the men were having their meetings. It was me, Debbie Carson, Barbara Barnes, Elizabeth Fields, and Alice Bartholomew. We'd play cards and have cocktails and swap stories. Liz and Alice and I have kept up, but I never have time anymore now that I have Jack. I can't expect Tom's parents to keep a watch on him all the time. They're getting on in years, you know."

Ruth rattled off a list of ailments the elderly Dormans were suffering. Jean hoped that when she was their age, she wouldn't be described in terms of rheumatism, cataracts, bum knees, and hammertoe. Hopefully, her family would describe her contributions to society and marvel at her uncommonly young appearance. Ruth had segued into her own parents' health conditions by the time they reached their destination.

She concluded by saying, "Mom's probably going to have to have that removed. Just pull up alongside that door there, Jean."

Jean guided the Cabriolet to a stop against the curb in front of a wide door. She cut the engine and the two women emerged from the car and collected their boxes. Ruth balanced her box against one hip, dishes shifting noisily inside it, as she knocked on the door. A woman with black hair, severe bangs, and an unfortunate piggish nose, answered.

"Ruth! Oh, it's so delightful to see you!" she said cheerfully. The women exchanged an awkward, one-armed hug.

The pig-nosed woman was introduced as Debbie Carson and she led them inside the building. The hall was decorated with black streamers and hosted several long tables. They set their boxes on a table near the end of the room. It seemed especially bright inside after the darkened sky they came in under. Jean hoped that the rain it threatened would either hold off until she got home or was over with before she left the wake. Following Ruth's lead, she unfolded the table cloths they'd brought and spread one out over each tabletop. Small vases filled with white carnations and sprigs of eucalyptus were brought from a side room and placed in the center of each table.

After that task was complete, Jean accompanied Ruth through a doorway and into a kitchen, where three other women stood, holding coffee cups and chatting. The smell of coffee was heavenly and Jean gratefully accepted a steaming cup. She held her hands close against it, trying to chase the chill away. Ruth performed the introductions. The woman with strawberry blonde hair and shiny pearl earrings was Alice Bartholomew. She seemed rather nice, considering her husband was the banker taking Rose's house from her. Elizabeth Fields had auburn hair cut in a bob and wore a thin gold chain with a tiny pendant. She was married to a baker who's store was just down the street from Teddy's father's butcher shop. The third lady excused herself and stepped out of the room, before being introduced. Ruth followed her out.

Alice, Elizabeth, and Jean engaged in polite conversation, leaning against countertops and sipping their coffee for a while before Ruth returned. The catering had arrived and she needed help setting everything out. Although the staff who delivered massive basins of steamed vegetables, fried fish, and pasta took care of setting them up, there was an assortment of desserts that needed to be laid out. They ranged from simple cookies to elegant bundt cakes and brown-crusted pies. Jean eyed a merengue covetously as she helped arrange the homemade desserts on a counter.

With so many hands, the wives of the Rotary Club members made quick work of getting the hall ready. Before long, the people Jean greeted at the funeral home had begun to arrive from the service. Some of them looked tired or bored, others had tear-stained cheeks and red noses. A few were chatting away as if they were at any other social gathering. Elizabeth and Debbie engaged Jean's help filling coffee cups and brewing tea. As she was carrying a pot around, trying to spot anyone with an empty cup, she got a feel for the room.

From the quality of their clothes and the little snippets of conversation she caught, Jean judged nearly everyone to be at the higher end of middle class. A few children, who looked between the ages of eight and eleven clung to a red-haired woman who was smoothing down cowlicks and wiping chins. Her husband had gone to stand with a group of men smoking near one corner of the room. He resembled the framed portrait of Arnold Barnes festooned with flowers and candles that sat at the end of one table. Jean noticed an empty cup in his hand and headed in his direction.

As she approached, she heard him say, "Sure, he loved his horses. He's not the only man who ever bet on a pony, but he gave all of that up when he met Barbara. Believe me, by the time young Nathan was born, my brother's gambling days were well behind him." The other men nodded and hmm'd agreeably.

Jean said, "Sorry to cut in, gentlemen, but would anyone care for a fresh cup?"

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