Branch woke with a troubled conscience but a contented libido. Esme had poured wine, taken a sip, shed her robe, and lain down by Branch with a soft sigh and a smile. She even handed him a condom. What could he do? She had a beautiful, liquid body. Despite her aggressive entrance, she was languid and passive in his embrace. He wasn’t sure she came to orgasm. She didn’t linger afterward, but kissed him, slipped on her robe, and left. Branch brooded on her response. He had not rushed her, and he had extended foreplay until she seemed ready. Was he just not very exciting? Would she be back? So much for his resolve to avoid entanglement. He had just been introduced to her body; he didn’t know her, herself, at all.
She didn’t appear at breakfast, or at lunch. Branch overheard, as the participants gathered for the master class, Daphne complaining to Gerald that Esme’s husband arrived in the middle of the morning and insisted that she come with him. They had driven off with no word about when they would return. So their piano quintet would not be able to perform.
Branch’s quintet got through the Mozart, but not without some flat notes and late entrances from Harriet. But Margo and Branch’s duet went well, and the coaches praised them. They didn’t say anything to Harriet.
Branch was taking his pre-dinner walk when he saw a black BMW drive up, stop abruptly, let Esme out, and take off in a scattering of gravel. She walked with her head down; Branch thought she didn’t look happy.
At dinner, Esme seemed to have lost her canary-satiated-cat manner, but she sat by Branch and rubbed her leg against his. And after piano quartets, she again came to his room. She seemed distant and even more passive. Afterwards, Branch held her when she rose to leave.
“Please,” he said. “We need to talk. I know that’s conventionally the woman’s line, but I’m concerned about a few things. First, your husband. Does he know?”
She sighed. “Do you mean about us? No. About somebody, yes.” She stirred restlessly, not relaxing into Branch’s embrace. “We have this arrangement. Once a year he goes off to play golf, or whatever else he wants, and I go off to play music and get some sex.” She smiled faintly, with a glance at Branch.
“Only once a year?”
“Well, usually. Not always.”
“He’s not interested?”
“I find that hard to believe,” Branch said, with an appreciative caress. “But his visit seemed to upset you.”
“That was about an entirely different matter. Family stuff, money, lawyers. We have a good consulting relationship. We have common concerns.”
“Would you like to talk about the problem?”
“Not really. I’ll just have to trust Howard to straighten it out.”
“Am I giving you what you need?”
“Yes, of course.” She patted his cheek. Branch felt skeptical. All the other women Branch had known intimately had seemed more responsive during sex, and it was clear when they had had an orgasm and when they had not. Again, he was not sure about Esme.
A curious thing happened when Esme left. She had put on her robe and closed the door, when Branch heard her gasp, then ask, “Elsie! What are you doing up so late?”
He heard Elsie’s calm, confident little voice. “I couldn’t sleep, so I took a walk.”
“You’d better get back. Your folks will worry about you.”
“No they won’t. They know I won’t go outside.”
“Well, anyway, you should be asleep.”
The next morning when Branch came down for breakfast, he noticed Elsie sitting by herself at a table in one of the lobby bay windows. She had a pad of paper and a box of crayons, and was absorbed in drawing. She reminded him of Celia’s little boy and the short-lived fantasies he had entertained about fatherhood. She was totally focused on her art, and totally confident about each stroke. He moved closer to take a look. It was like other kid art he had seen, in that people tended to be mostly sticks and circles, and the sky was a blue line at the top with a bright yellow sun, and the ocean was a blue line at the bottom. But it was unlike other kid art in that Elsie seemed to have a sense of color. The blue of the sky was different from the blue of the sea. The people were clothed in remarkable colors and had details like glasses and whiskers and long or short hair.
“That’s a very pretty picture,” Branch said.
“I know,” Elsie said without looking up, “I’m a good artist.”
“I’ll say. My name is Aldo.”
She looked up calmly. “I know. My daddy told everybody who you were.”
“Do you like music as well as art?”
“I like it but not as much. I squeak too much when I play.”
“What do you play?”
“Violin. I know all of first position.”
“That’s good. Keep playing, and after a while you won’t squeak.”
She returned her attention to her picture. “I know. That’s what Mom says.”
At breakfast, Elsie went to several tables to show off her picture. The honorary grandparents praised and petted her until Phoebe, her mother, made her sit down and eat.
The ensembles had been changed for the morning session. Branch had noticed Esme talking earnestly to a skeptical Gerald last night after dinner. Finally Gerald had given an “if that’s what you want” gesture and walked off. So Branch was surprised to see Esme’s piano quintet group include Daphne, Margo, Sharon, and Harriet. He was relieved to have Harriet out of his own group, but he would miss playing with Margo. His own group was made up of Asa, the cellist, and violinists Sheila and Myron, the Einstein look-alike.
They were to play a Beethoven opus 18, which was fine with him, though he would have liked something more challenging and adventurous, like a Bartok or Shostakovich. He had played all the Beethovens many times, and always felt rewarded, though he felt some impatience when the others in the group were less easy with the work than he. It turned out that Myron was a competent first violinist, and Sheila was fair at second. All were technically sufficient, but needed to listen to each other more, a point the coach stressed. Their coach was the first violinist of the Camden Quartet, Alan Markham, a tall, lean, soft-spoken man who reminded Branch of a beardless Abe Lincoln.
At lunch, Branch joined Daphne and Margo, avoiding Esme in the interest of discretion. Esme and Sharon were at a table with Harriet, and it appeared that both were trying to soothe and cheer up Harriet, who seemed even more glum than usual. At his table Branch found Margo trying to calm a seething Daphne.
“What’s going on?” Branch asked innocently.
“That Harriet is driving me nuts,” Daphne growled. “She just wouldn’t listen this morning, and wouldn’t fix her intonation no matter how many times we went over stuff. I finally lost it and told her off.”
“We’ve all wanted to say that,” Margo said. “It just won’t do any good.”
“Everybody pussyfoots around her because she’s rich and helps the Camdens. But she spoils every group she’s in.” Daphne slapped the table. “Nobody speaks up for the music, for the poor composer. We all have limits and make mistakes, but at least we try. Harriet just won’t try. Just because she has money and big name viola she thinks—“
“Shh,” Margo interrupted.
Daphne stopped, closed her eyes and squeezed her lips shut. Then she said softly, “I just wish she’d die and leave her money to the Camdens.”
Branch said, “I heard it had to go to her family unless she had a child.”
“Well, they will be lucky people. I guess the world of music will benefit anyway from her absence.” Daphne’s ire began to subside. Then she frowned and pretended to beat her head on the table. “How’m I going to get through the afternoon with her?” She looked up at Branch in mock desperation. “Aldo, sweetheart, lover, you wouldn’t want to take her back and make a quintet, would you?’
“Only to prevent a murder. I am a cop, you know.”
“Well—“ Daphne began.
“Maybe she’ll talk to Gerald and get with someone else,” Margo said.
“Or maybe I’ll murder her.” Daphne smiled.
Branch’s group worked on listening and ensemble, and made some improvements. He was in a good mood when he took his pre-dinner walk. Again he found Daphne practicing her tai-chi.
“I hear that’s good for producing serenity,” Branch said.
Daphne continued her slow, graceful movements. She smiled and shook her head. “It’s not working today. I guess it’s the Irish in me.”
“I take it that Harriet was back with you this afternoon.”
“Yep. It took all my chi to keep a lid on it. She was, if anything, worse. But I focused on Margo and Esme and resisted violence.”
“Good. Could you talk to Gerald about changing?”
“I suppose.” She didn’t sound hopeful.
When Branch went in for dinner, he saw Asa, Myron, and Sheila laughing together, and asked to join them. He wanted to keep his good mood going. Margo, Daphne, and Esme were deep in conference, their heads close together, and didn’t notice him coming in. Harriet and Sharon sat quietly by themselves. Branch looked around at the other tables; there were several participants he had not yet met, and was mildly curious about them. But he relaxed into the cheerful banter at his table, and enjoyed getting to know more about these lively elders. Asa was a retired physician, like many amateur players; Myron, unlike his look-alike, did not teach physics, but biology; and Sheila had also been a teacher, of high school history.
Myron got on a rant about so-called “intelligent design.” “It’s not science,” he insisted. “It’s nothing like science. It’s not predictive, and you can’t test it. But just look at it with common sense. If an intelligence—their weasel-word for God—was powerful enough—intelligent enough—to impose its design on earthly life, why were there so many errors, so many extinctions? Ninety-nine percent of all life that’s ever been on the planet is now extinct. That’s a pretty big failure rate for a supposedly intelligent designer.” He went on, Asa nodding in agreement, but Sheila looking dubious. They were so absorbed that they didn’t notice that most of the others had finished eating and left. Margo’s hand on Branch’s shoulder made him look up.
“Can we tear you away from science for a little music?”
“Sure. Sorry folks, excuse me.”
Myron waved his hand. “Much better to play music. We’ll continue our seminar another time.”
The piano quartet played the first Fauré quartet. Branch enjoyed this piece; the viola part was interesting and challenging, but not too difficult. It was melodic, with interesting harmonies and a fetching rhythmic motif in the finale. Esme had a lot of work with the piano part. She played with intensity and concentration. It was odd, Branch thought, that her languid, lazy cat demeanor vanished when she played. And she had strength to give fortissimos their due.
Some of that intensity seemed to carry over when she came to his room later. She seemed more eager, and Branch thought that maybe her deep sigh at one point characterized her particular individual orgasm. When they were done, she lingered only a short time. She seemed to have something on her mind, but was reluctant to talk. Branch thought that she must be still concerned with the business her husband was supposed to take care of. He soon drifted off to sleep.
He woke to a pounding on his door. He was groggy with first sleep and didn’t know where he was for a moment. The illuminated clock by his bed read one-twenty in the morning. The knock was repeated.
“I’m coming.” He pulled on his jeans and opened the door. He traveled without a robe. Sharon, in a robe, pale and frightened, swallowed and said, “Harriet’s been killed.”