THE WAY TO A MAN’S HEART
By Merrilee Robson
The man lay spread-eagled across the large bed. Dr. Clare didn’t have to examine him too closely to know that he was dead. His face was blank, his eyes empty. The naked body was flaccid, rolls of fat hanging loose around his waist.
The blonde wasn’t fat. She wasn’t naked either, just nearly so, wrapped in a lacy black negligee.
Her hair was pretty, he thought. Very pale blond and wavy. Dr. Clare didn’t know much about fashion but he had noticed that many of the young women these days were wearing their hair long and straight, parted in the middle. This girl’s hair was curled in a bouffant style that he found very attractive.
He wondered why she hadn’t gotten dressed yet. She might not have wanted to wait before she called the front desk. But surely there had been enough time to dress once the hotel doctor had confirmed the death. Enough time before he got there.
Maybe the police hadn’t allowed her to change. Wanting to keep the room undisturbed in case it was a crime scene.
She made a pretty picture, curled up in the club chair in the corner. She looked fragile and helpless in that lacy thing. That might have been the idea. In case anyone got the idea that she might have killed him.
Dr. Clare was positive she hadn’t. At least not in the way the police might have suspected.
She looked like she wished she were dead. Or just anywhere else but this fancy hotel room with a dead man in it.
The doctor looked around the room, admiring the style of the place. He knew many people thought the hotel was old fashioned. Or old anyway. The hotel had been built in 1908, making it almost sixty years old.
But he liked it. It was elegant, he thought. Lots of people preferred the newer, modern hotels, with their sleek, hard edges. The medical association had started to hold its meetings in one of them. But Dr. Clare liked the luxury of the Empress Hotel.
As had the dead man, obviously.
“Thanks for calling me,” he said to other doctor, the one the front desk had called first after receiving the call from the hysterical woman in room 506.
“It was her that suggested it,” the other doctor said. “Says she’s his secretary. Has all his contacts. I thought I should check with you.”
“I’ll sign the death certificate,” Dr. Clare said. He smiled at the police officer. “I know you have to be called in a case of sudden death. But it’s clear what happened. The man’s been under my care for years. Not that he seems to have taken my advice. I warned him a year ago that his heart was going to cause problems if he didn’t lose some weight. Shame though. It didn’t have to happen if he followed the diet I gave him.”
“His wife was cooking those meals,” the blonde interrupted. “But he hated them. He said everything tasted like grass or sawdust. He’d eat them and then tell her he was going back to the office. Sometimes he’d come to my place and I’d cook for him. I knew the kind of food he liked. And my mother taught me to cook pretty good. She always said the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach.”
Dr. Clare frowned. Literally, in this case, he thought.
The young woman continued as if she hadn’t noticed. “She was packing lunches for him too. Salads and things. But what man wants to eat like that? We’d tell people he had a lunch meeting and come here. He really liked it here. He said he remembered coming here for dinner with his parents. And he kept talking about how the queen stayed here. Like that was supposed to be a big deal.”
The poor guy probably thought the hotel would impress his young secretary, Dr. Clare thought. It didn’t seem to.
And maybe he appreciated the sheer size of the place, he thought. It was easier to keep your affairs private in a big hotel.
“He liked to come here best, I think,” the young woman went on. “I know he liked my cooking but he liked it here. We’d order room service, and well...”
The doctor looked at the room service cart pushed to the side of the room. Lifting the cover on one of the plates, he saw the remains of a large steak. Judging by the small pot of congealed butter, he’d ordered the popular Surf and Turf, with a lobster tail. And he was pretty sure that it came with all the trimmings – baked potato, plenty of butter, sour cream, bacon bits.
He looked at her with disapproval.
“Well, I thought it was her that needed to lose weight. He said she was getting dumpy. He said she’d really let herself go. I think that’s why he came on to me. I mean she’s older than me and all but that’s no reason to lose interest in how you look.
“Anyway,” she went on. “I thought maybe she’d figured out something was going on. So maybe she was cooking all that low-fat food so she could lose weight and just couldn’t be bothered to make something else for him.”
“You didn’t think he needed to lose weight?” he asked.
“Well sure, but, you know, most of the older guys his age look like that and they don’t die!”
The doctor frowned again. His patient was only in his forties, a few years older than himself. He had seen the man a few months ago and he’d sworn his wife was preparing the low-fat meals on the diet. But he didn’t seem to be losing weight the way he should have been.
Had he been too quick to agree to sign the death certificate? Maybe he should look into the death more closely. But then he saw the ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts, the fat around the man’s abdomen. The guy probably drove everywhere, he thought. No exercise except the occasional game of golf, spent mostly in the bar.
He thought of Eleanor, the dead man’s wife. She was a few years younger than her husband. Blond and pretty, she would have looked much like the secretary at a younger age. And, sure, she had maybe put on a pound or two but he would hardly say that she had “let herself go.”
“His wife would be devastated to know that he died this way,” he said. “She’s my patient too. Nice woman. She was very worried when I talked to her husband about his health. She seemed to be really trying to help him lose weight and exercise more.” He looked at the police officer and the other doctor. “Do we have to tell her the circumstances of his death?”
The other doctor shrugged. “The hotel has meeting rooms. You could say that he was here for a meeting when he died. The funeral home can collect the body and it will be all cleaned up before she has to see him.”
“There shouldn’t be an autopsy?” the police officer asked.
“No, it was a heart attack that killed him,” Dr. Clare said, shrugging off any doubts. “Brought on by rich food and too much sex with a younger woman, probably. But I don’t consider that murder.”
“Well,” the officer said, “that might not be a bad way to go. But if you’re signing the death certificate, we’re fine with that. We have to notify the next of kin but I don’t much care if the wife doesn’t know all the details.”
Dr. Clare glanced at the secretary. Would she insist on telling the wife?
The young woman lit another cigarette and tossed her lighter down on the bedside table beside the overflowing glass ashtray.
“He was going to leave her anyway,” she said. “We were going to get married. I would have been in that nice house, living the life of leisure. Now I have to get another job.”
“I can tell you’re heartbroken,” Dr. Clare said, raising an eyebrow.
The secretary continued as if he hadn’t said anything. “Do you know she wanted to get a job, or maybe go to university? Now that the kids are getting older. But he didn’t want her to. He said people would think it was funny if his wife went out to work. As if he couldn’t support her properly. Boy, if he’d married me, I wouldn’t be wanting to go out pounding a typewriter all day.”
“Maybe she’d find a different type of job,” Dr. Clare said, mildly. “But doesn’t it seem odd to you that he cared what his wife did when he was planning on leaving her for another woman?”
He was pleased when he saw the frown on the young woman’s face. He suspected the man had had no intention of getting a divorce. People were divorcing more these days but it wasn’t easy. And he doubted if Eleanor would willingly agree to a divorce, not with children involved. It would cause quite a scandal.
He turned to the policeman. “You say you have to notify the next of kin. Do you mind if I go along with you? She might need some care. I’m not sure how she’ll take the news. She was devoted to him.”
“Don’t mind at all,” the officer responded. “In fact, I’d appreciate it.”
His patient’s home was in an older neighbourhood of leafy streets. The lots weren’t quite as big as in the suburbs but the houses were large and the gardens spacious.
The dead man’s wife opened the door as Dr. Clare and the police officer came up the walk.
“Dr. Clare, what are you doing here?” Eleanor asked. Her expression wavered between a smile of welcome and a worried look.
“We have bad news, Eleanor,” Dr. Clare said. “Can we come inside?”
“Not one of the children?” she asked, her face creasing with worry. “Oh, no, not John.”
“Let’s go inside,” the doctor said. “We shouldn’t discuss this out here.”
“I don’t understand,” Eleanor said, after he had explained what happened. “I was cooking those recipes the dietician gave me. He should have been losing weight. I was.”
Dr. Clare looked at Eleanor. She had looked good before but now her figure was trim and her skin had a healthy glow. She wouldn’t stay a widow long if she didn’t want to, he thought.
“In fact,” she went on, “When he didn’t seem to be losing weight, I tried to cut the calories even more. I’d just make a salad for dinner, even though he said he wanted meat. Or I’d cut back on the portions. He complained about being hungry but he did eat those meals. I just don’t understand why he couldn’t lose weight.”
“I know you did your best,” Dr. Clare told the weeping woman. “Sometimes these things happen, even when we try hard.” He laid a palm on her soft hand. “Do you have someone to stay with you?”
“The children will be home soon. And I can call my sister. She’ll help.”
“It’s best not to be alone at a time like this,” Dr. Clare told her, getting out his prescription pad. “I can write a prescription for some tranquilizers or sleeping pills if you like.”
“You know,” the doctor said to the police officer as they left the house, “the recipes the dietician gave her were meant to cut a few calories and help him lose weight gradually, without making too drastic a change to the way he ate. I couldn’t say anything to her but, by trying to cut back so drastically, giving him salads and small portions, she probably drove him to go out and eat more. She was trying to keep him healthy but she was doing exactly the wrong thing.”
“Poor woman,” the policeman agreed. “Good thing she’ll never find out.”
“Yes, she would never forgive herself. And thanks for keeping quiet about the secretary. She doesn’t need to know that.”
“She obviously didn’t have a clue.”
“No,” Dr. Clare agreed. “Thank goodness.”
He glanced back at the house, waving goodbye as he saw Eleanor watching them leave.
Odd, he thought. Must be the way the light reflected off the window. If he hadn’t known better, he’d have sworn she was smiling.
Merrilee Robson is the author of MURDER IS UNCOOPERATIVE, a housing co-op mystery. She has published short fiction in the past, but not in the mystery genre. She lives in Vancouver and is a director of Crime Writers of Canada. www.merrileerobson.ca
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