The Case of the Secret in the Dead Man’s Chest
by E. J. Wagner

“It happened while he was cleaning his gun - according to the wife,” the cop said.  It was early Spring, 3 a.m., and raining heavily.  From the next room of the suburban split level came the sound of a woman screaming rhythmically.  Every so often she would grow quiet and sob.  Then the screaming would start again.

The medical examiner, a tired man of forty whose name was Seymour Edelman, peered through his glasses at the shape on the bed.  “Did she see it happen?” he asked.

“Nah .. she said he couldn’t sleep and that he was going to do some chores, clean the gun, and she heard the shot and found him about an hour ago.”

The corpse, dressed in a crisp navy blue bathrobe with maroon trim, lay on its back.  A red hole glittered at the right temple like a terrible jewel.  There was ring of blackened skin around it.  Near the right hand lay a dull gray .22-caliber revolver.

“Well,” said Edelman, “there’s no cleaning stuff.  What was he supposed to be cleaning the gun with? I guess I better speak to the wife.”  He forced himself down the hall towards the screaming ... .

The following morning an autopsy was performed on the body of Edward Hunter - Caucasian male, 60 years old.

He measured five feet and eight inches in length and weighed 150 pounds.  The heart and digestive organs appeared unremarkable, the liver normal in size and weight.

But on the pleura, the delicate sacs of membrane that lie between the lung and the thorax, were numerous white glistening nodules;  and on the lower lobe of the left lung was lesion the size of a dime.

Bertha Hunter sat across the desk from Edelman.  She was somewhere between fifty and sixty years of age.  Her eyes and hair were wild.  Her hands clutched each other.

Edelman, who wished he were somewhere else, cleared his throat.  “Mrs. Hunter, I think we need to understand what happened to your husband.  I find it hard to accept that it happened just the way it’s been described to me and I think it’s really important to ... straighten it out.  Had he been sick lately?  Has he been depressed?”  Edelman leaned forward.  “Did he talk about death?”

“My husband did not commit suicide!”  He was a religious man.  It is against our religion to kill yourself.  So it was an accident.”

“Mrs. Hunter, when we examined your husband internally, we found some signs of disease, the sort of disease that can come from having been exposed to hazardous materials - maybe a long time ago.  If this is what happened, if your husband was sick, seriously sick, and he knew it ... it might have upset him enough so that he would behave in an unusual way.”  Edelman knew he sounded like a pedantic pest.  He tried to stop.  But, watching Bertha Hunter’s red, boiled-looking eyes made it difficult. ...

“Look, Mrs. Hunter.  We would like to understand how this accident came to happen.  It might help us prevent other accidents.  I have to understand in order to sign a death certificate.  So, if you would please answer these questions ...”

Hours later, it had been determined that Eddie Hunter had been married to his wife for over thirty years.  They were childless.  For the past twenty years he had worked as a bank teller.  Before that he had been a clerk at a post office.  He had never worked with asbestos to his wife’s knowledge.  He had never worked in a shipyard, or in a place that made rope, or paint, or brake linings.  He didn’t smoke.  It was true that he’d been coughing lately and had seen a doctor several weeks before.  The doctor had ordered some tests.  Eddie had canceled them, saying that he was feeling much better even though the cough hadn’t gone away.

He had recently been sad, thought.  His old friend, Bernie Ginzberg, had died.  For the last ten years, Bernie had lived in Florida and they hadn’t seen each other.  But they had talked on the phone almost every week.  Bernie had been real sick, something with his lungs.  The last few phone calls had really upset Eddie.

He and Bernie had grown up together.  The summer Bertha met Eddie, he and Bernie had been roommates.  It must have been at least thirty-five years before.  The boys had summer jobs together.  They used to come in for cherry cokes at the drugstore where she waited on counter right across the street from the the factory where they worked, a place that wove draperies and curtains.  Big curtains for theatres.  It was heavy, hot, airless work and Eddie had quit as soon as something better came along.

Seymour Edelman explained about theatre curtains and how they were made fire-proof.

“I think, maybe, when we finish all the tests, we should talk again.  You might feel that you want to see a lawyer.”

“Will it bring him back?  Will all this talking bring him back?”

“Well, no.  Of course not.  But it might help someone else.  It might keep these factories from being careless. ...”

“I don’t want to hear you say he killed himself!  If you’re a doctor ... you’re wearing a white coat - that makes you a doctor, don’t it?  Why don’t you go cure some sick person instead of saying my Eddie killed himself?”

She left the door open behind her when she left.  Edelman wrote himself a note to call her in a few weeks when the tests were done.  He drove home, thinking about Hunter.  About Hunter perhaps knowing about the asbestos, about Hunter not sleeping, about Hunter waiting in the doctor’s office, thinking about the tests the doctor ordered, and about the .22 in the dresser drawer.  He thought about Hunter putting on the blue bathrobe with the maroon trim, about Hunter perhaps writing a note that his wife later hid.

When Edelman got home, he found an envelope in his mailbox.  It was from his aunt, and contained a news clipping about his cousin, Gary, who was a specialist in sports medicine.  Gary was smiling in the photo and wearing a T-shirt with a little reptile on the pocket.

“Just wanted to share this with you,” read the note, “to remind you that medicine can be fulfilling and positive and even remunerative.  It does not have to be forever full of death and decay and depression.  Remember, some people change their minds ... and blossom ... and grow.  With loving thoughts, Aunt Marion.”

Edelman put the note in the drawer with the others.  Then he cleaned up the mess the cat had made and poured himself a beer.

© 1985 E. J. Wagner

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