Death and the Maiden
“You need a vacation.”
Sergeant Aldo Branch of the Houston Police agreed, but he was surprised to hear the words from his boss, Lieutenant Narciso Sandoval. Branch had just finished a long report about his latest case, the murder of an entire string quartet and the theft of four priceless Stradivarius instruments by right-wing extremists, who also kidnapped a billionaire oilman, Clint Mattingly. Branch had glossed over his own capture by the murderers and his harrowing ride with the scariest of the bunch, an enormous thug called Boomer, a vet afflicted with Gulf War syndrome. He also didn’t go into the failure of the promising relationship with Celia, a young widow who decided not to invest in a man whose occupation often put him in harm’s way.
Sandoval was “Sandy” to Branch, but “Narc” to many of the younger cops. The latter name was not used to Sandoval’s face, of course, and it did not refer to involvement in drug enforcement, but to the rumor that the lieutenant was a narcoleptic. This perception arose from Sandoval’s habit of listening to reports leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed and responding with grunts that might be interpreted as snores. Sandoval did not open his eyes when he made his recommendation to Branch. But even with closed eyes, Sandoval must have noted that Branch was exhausted.
“Ok,” Branch said, “I won’t object. When could I go? Next month?”
“This coming Monday?” It was Thursday. “What about the paperwork?”
“Tomorrow. Chat will do the paperwork.” Chatahoochee Jackson was Branch’s partner, a younger African-American computer whiz.
“He’ll love that. Are you trying to get rid of me?”
Sandoval opened one eye. “Yep. Not that we don’t all love you. But I think you ought to be gone until the questions about Mattingly die down.”
“You don’t think I could handle them?”
“Sure you could. But do you want to?”
“Well, no, now that you ask.”
“And we can fudge a little. We can say that the chief investigator is away. And the Chronicle boys will be on to something else when you get back.”
“When will that be?”
“Oh, two weeks. Three, maybe. Get out of town.”
“An undisclosed location?”
“Well, you can tell Chat if you like.” Sandoval closed his eye and sniffed. “So scram.”
Branch left the Travis Street homicide headquarters, gasping as the suffocating late August air blanketed him. He carried the light jacket he wore, along with a tie, at the beginning of each day. The jacket would be gone before noon, and the tie by two. Khakis, short-sleeved shirt, and crepe-soled shoes completed his usual attire. Branch had begun to admit to being middle-aged at forty-four. His dark hair was turning gray over his ears, and his moustache was grizzled; his trouser size had not changed, but he felt his middle getting softer. More exercise—maybe when it got cooler. He got in his car and turned the air conditioning up to the desperation level. As he drove home, he thought about where he might go. Somewhere cool.
He kept the air conditioner in his house on during the day to prevent mold and mildew, but it was still uncomfortably warm when he got there. He goosed the thermostat and heard the compressor kick in. Picking up the mail, he got a cold Lone Star from the fridge and plopped into a worn but comfortable easy chair. He turned on the TV, muted the sound, and tuned the radio to the classical station. Ah. Cold beer and Mozart. If anything interesting appeared on the TV news, he could mute the radio and listen to the TV. He seldom did.
Branch lived alone in the dishonestly named section of Houston called the Heights. The freeway overpasses were further above sea level than his neighborhood. He had bought in before the latest wave of gentrification had reached the area. Though he had made some small improvements, he was well aware that whoever bought his rapidly appreciating lot would raze his two-bedroom bungalow.
Most of the mail went into the wastebasket by his chair—ads, appeals for donations to questionable charities, catalogs for farting toilet paper dispensers or upscale gardening gear. He lingered over a notice of an upcoming chamber music concert at Rice, one of the local universities. Branch was himself an enthusiastic amateur player on the viola, addicted to string quartets. He played regularly with a group of fellow amateurs, good players, good enough to make real music of Brahms and Beethoven and Shostakovich.
The concert notice triggered a memory. He went to his desk and shuffled through a pile of mail that had not yet gone into the basket. He pulled out an invitation for an adult chamber music camp. He had kept it as a sort of dream token, a fantasy of something he might do if he ever got a vacation. Now he had one. This camp was in Arizona. It would be dryer, but still hot. He didn’t much like the western landscape. He flipped the flyer into the trash and booted up his computer. There were plenty of chamber music camps. One in Maine caught his eye. It was coached by the Camden Quartet, a group he had heard perform in the local concert series and on recordings. They played well, and seemed to enjoy playing together. Two men and two women, young, but not kids. They might be fun to get to know.
Branch went to the Puffin Bay Music Party website. The deadline for applying had passed, and the first session began next week. He decided to apply anyway and see what happened. He could make pretty good representation of himself as a player; maybe they would let him play second viola in a quintet. He filled out the on-line application and submitted it, and then browsed through the website. The Party was held in a seaside inn just as the regular tourist season ended. Photos showed a rambling white clapboard building with a long porch. The rooms had a cozy New England look that was a bit too deliberate: patchwork quilts on four-poster beds, embroidered samplers and seascapes on the walls, lace curtains. Pictures of past participants looked as if they were having fun, sawing away. Lots of people with gray hair, but a couple of attractive women, maybe in their late thirties or early forties.
Branch paused over the pictures of the women and sighed. He had had real hopes that his relationship with Celia might have gone somewhere. But like his wife, who had left five years ago, she didn’t like the prospect of not knowing whether her man would come home that night or end up in the hospital or the morgue. And then there was Allegra, the pianist he had had an intense two-year affair with after his wife had gone. As it turned out, she just liked variety. Before she married someone else, a year after gently dumping Branch, she had a piano quintet party. The string players at her party soon became Branch’s regular quartet. After they had been playing for some months, they discovered that they had all, successively, been Allegra’s lovers. Allegra had since divorced her husband and moved to California. The abandoned husband had then become an honorary member of the Allegra Quartet; he didn’t play, but he liked to listen, and he brought good wine.
Branch had strong domestic instincts. He would like to be a faithful husband, maybe a father. He had enjoyed his brief acquaintance with Celia’s bright, appealing six-year-old son, and had entertained fantasies of playing catch and building a treehouse. But these serious relationships had always ended in pain and longing. At the camp he would be friendly but keep his distance. No flirting. But what if some attractive woman offered a light summer affair, a little sex but no attachment? Well. Maybe. It would be ungentlemanly to refuse. No, that was a fantasy—stick to music. But would he be capable of an affair without entanglement? He had never tried. Could he do it without being a jerk? He shook his head—it was a test he was unlikely to face.
Back at headquarters on Friday morning, Branch checked his email on his office computer. As he had hoped, his application for the Music Party had been accepted, pending a credit card number for the fees. He entered the number and promised to arrive Monday morning, ready to play quintets.
Chat Jackson, his partner, perched on the edge of Branch’s cluttered metal desk and sipped his first Dr. Pepper of the day. He frowned at the piles of papers. “So you just going to leave all this crap for me to clean up while you go fiddle?”
Branch shrugged. “Just following orders. Get out of town, Sandy said. Thought I’d go someplace cool.”
“Sheee-it! Maybe there’ll be enough to have some left over for you to have when you drag your lazy white butt back to town. I’ll try to save you some.” Jackson was thirty; despite the heat, he dressed like a banker: pinstripes in winter, seersucker in summer.
“Thanks. I’m sure you’ll manage.”
“Up there playing that squeaky old stuff you call music.”
“I probably can avoid hip-hop for two whole weeks.”
Branch and Jackson clashed mainly over music. Branch liked jazz as well as classical, and folk, bluegrass, blues, and even some country. But Jackson liked only hip-hop, so there was no music in their car. Their teasing and squabbling covered a fine working relationship; Branch trusted Jackson totally, not only to cover his back, but to pick up nuances in tone and expression in suspects and witnesses that Branch, despite his ear for music, often missed. Chat could spot a liar through a brick wall, and could squeeze more information out of a computer than anyone Branch knew.
Branch unsnapped his Glock nine milimeter and handed it to Jackson. “I could probably check this through in my bags, but I don’t want the hassle. I don’t expect to run into a fiddler who plays so bad I’d want to shoot him.”
Jackson looked at the gun and then at Branch. “You just asking for ol’ Murphy to teach you a lesson, you know.”
“Maybe so. Just lock it up for me, ok?”
Jackson took the gun, shaking his head. “I done told you, now.” Then he raised an eyebrow. “You hunting any poon up there?”
Branch feigned indignation. “Chat! How could you? I’m going for art, beauty, spiritual uplift.”
“Think you got any uplift left, old man?”
“Enough of that. We’ve got a little work to do before I leave.” Branch worked half-heartedly the rest of the morning while brooding on Chat’s warning and question. No, he wouldn’t need to shoot anybody, and any other hunting would be just fantasy. At noon, he pulled his jacket from the back of his chair and slung it over his shoulder. He grinned at the scowling Jackson as he headed for the door. “See you in a few weeks.”