Archive for April, 2010

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie (for previous chapters scroll down or see archives.

April 25, 2010

Chapter 4.

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.”
“Ok. Night.”
“Good night.”

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.”


Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie (for previous chapters see archives)

April 18, 2010

Chapter 3.

Before moving to the inn for dinner, Branch stretched out on his bed and thought about what Margo had told him. In a way, the fact that Esme was married, and that the fact might not inhibit her, jibed with Branch’s fantasy of a no-attachment affair. But he wondered about the husband. Was he a willing cuckold, a knowing participant in a so-called open marriage? It would be the first time Branch had part in adultery, and as a believer in and upholder of law and order, his temptation troubled his sense of ethics. Besides, she may just be flirting. He found that he liked what he had seen of Margo, but she might be married too, for all he knew. And she seemed the sort of woman he might get attached to if he got too close. He still hadn’t met the redhead. He sat up and scanned the list of participants, wondering which she might be. Margo was Margo Ball, from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Esme was Mrs. Howard Pilkington of Danbury, Connecticut. Harriet Downey was from Weekapaug, Rhode Island, as was Sharon Green. These last two lived on the same street in what seemed to be neighboring numbers.
He grew restless and checked his watch. Still a half hour before dinner. Maybe a walk around the neighborhood. Outside, the sun was declining and a cool breeze was coming in from the bay. The sky was clear. Branch breathed deeply. Better just keep things simple and enjoy the music and not being in Houston.
Around the corner of the inn, the lawn sloped down toward the grove of pines that looked like a pleasant destination for his walk. As he topped a rise, he found the redhead who had shared Margo’s table at lunch. She was in a leotard and sweatshirt, making slow, graceful moves. Tai chi, Branch thought, I shouldn’t interrupt, and walked by with a wave. Might as well be friendly. He continued toward the pines. The grove was free of undergrowth, shady, and fresh-smelling. He hummed some Mozart whose tempo matched his stride. On his way back he caught up with the redhead, who was walking toward the inn.
“I didn’t like to interrupt,” he said as he approached, “but I’d just like to say hello and introduce myself.”
She kept moving, but said, “You’re Aldo, right? I’m Daphne. Thanks for not breaking my focus. Tai chi helps my music.”
“Sure. I was just thinking you might be a cellist, since I don’t see a fiddler’s mark on your jaw.”
“You’re right.”
“I am a trained detective,” he said with a smile. He was pleased to see her smile as well. “I played with your friend Margo this afternoon. She’s very good.”
“Yes she is. I hear you got stuck with Harriet.”
“Yep. It’s too bad about her. Has anyone tried to help her?”
“God, yes. Doesn’t do any good.”
“I understand that after dinner people are free to form groups on their own—mix and match. Any advice about how a new guy should handle it?”
She looked at him with a half smile. “I’m sure at dinner you will be courted with many offers. The word gets around quickly if you’re a good player.”
Maybe there’s safety in numbers, Branch thought. “Is your group full?”
She smiled again and shook her head slightly. “Well, we had a piano trio set up, but we could turn it into a piano quartet.”
“I’d enjoy that if you wouldn’t mind. I love those Brahms quartets. Who’s the pianist?”
“Esme, of course.” She almost laughed.
Daphne stopped and faced Branch, hands on hips. “I’ll save you a lot of trouble. I’m gay. But I’ll play with any good musician. Music, that is.”
“Fine with me.”
“And here’s a further bulletin you can do with what you like. Margo is straight and single.”
“We’ll play in the lobby after dinner. That’s the only good piano on the place. I’m sure Margo won’t mind. Or Esme.” She smiled again and headed toward the section of the inn that contained the rooms.
Branch continued his walk, pondering the underworld of female communication. Daphne understood that both Esme and Margo were interested in him, and wanted to let him know. Did everyone come to this Party thinking about getting laid? Back in his room, Branch checked the list of participants. Daphne Kennedy was from Boston, with a Boston University email address. Probably not those Kennedys, Branch thought.
Dinner was a sit-down affair. Daphne, Esme, and Margo were seated together and gestured that he should join them. He did, trying his best to show nothing but cool. The food was good, lasagna and a big salad, and the conversation focused on the piano quartet literature. Daphne preferred the third Brahms quartet, which had a gorgeous cello solo in the slow movement. Esme liked the first, with its lively gypsy finale. Margo liked them all, but was partial to the passionate middle of the slow movement of the second quartet. Everyone agreed that both Faure quartets were good. They preferred the first Mozart quartet, the one in G minor. They laughed at the words music students put to the opening theme, “Answer the telephone.” The second Mozart was good, but Daphne thought it too much like a piano concerto. The conversation descended into a kind of quiz, guided by Esme. Who had played the second Dvorak? The Saint-Saens? The Turina? The Walton? Only then did any tension between Margo and Esme emerge. Esme insisted that Shostakovich had written a piano quartet, and Margo calmly said that she must be thinking of the piano quintet, which she had played several times. Branch said he had played the quintet too. Maybe there was a piano quartet buried in the Russian archives.
Branch noted that their table elicited some glances and smiles among the other players. Harriet and Sharon sat by themselves in a corner.
Little Elsie left her parents’ table and circulated, showing the many grandparents at the other tables a crayon drawing and smiling at the “Oh’s” and compliments. She even submitted to a few hugs.
After the dinner crowd thinned, Branch’s table gathered by the piano and began the third Brahms quartet. Daphne played well, with good tone and feeling. Esme played with flair and brilliant technique, but a little too loudly for Branch’s taste, and insisted on her own tempos. Margo, as expected, played with accuracy and taste. Afterward, Esme invited everyone to her room for a nightcap.
“Thanks, but I’ll take a rain check,” Branch said, realizing that he was very tired. “I’ve had a long day.”
Esme pouted. “We’ll just have to have a hen party, then.”

The next morning, Branch woke early, feeling much refreshed. After a shower and shave, he wandered into the dining room in search of coffee. Sheila, the little woman with the British accent, was at the coffee bar looking through the tea bags. She looked up and smiled.
“Good morning!” she said. “You’d think they would have at least one bag of lapsang souchong. All I can find is hippie herb tea—‘Parsely Peacefulness,’ ‘Cinnamon Comfort.’”
“Any coffee?”
“There’s a pair of thermoses. Guess I’ll settle for plain old Lipton’s.”
Branch found a mug and pumped it full of coffee. “Did you have some good music yesterday?”
“Not bad. Didn’t get out of my depth.” She looked up sharply. “I see you are in the fast crowd. Your Brahms sounded good.”
“I just tried to keep up.”
Sharon entered the room, looking concerned. “Good morning. Is the water hot?” “Moderately,” Sheila said. She looked at Sharon and frowned. “Anything wrong?”
“Oh, Harriet is not feeling well. I’m bringing her some tea.”
“Poor Harriet. Try the ‘Cinnamon Comfort.’”
“Oh no. Plain tea.” Sharon filled a mug and scooped in sugar.
“Do you think she’ll feel like playing this morning?” Branch asked hopefully.
Sharon looked at him a second and tightened her lips. “You’re hoping she won’t. Well, I understand. But I hope you’ll come to understand Harriet better.” She left.
“Poor Harriet, indeed,” Sheila said. “She drives everyone crazy. But I suppose Sharon is right. We should be more understanding. She’s had a hard life, despite her money.”
“Oh yes. Family rejection, lawsuits over her inheritance. And,” she leaned closer and spoke softly, “she’s gay, you know. Her family was horrible about that.”
“And Sharon is—“
“Her partner. Bless her patient soul. And she’s not in it for the money. No, the lawsuit decreed that her awful family would inherit if she had no children. And unless there’s a biblical miracle, that’s not going to happen.”
Branch took his coffee out on the long porch and gazed out on the bay. The air was crisp and cool, the sky clear. The lobster boat was back, putting from one buoy to another, hauling in traps, emptying and baiting them, and dropping them back in the water. Branch hoped there would be lobster on the menu at some point.
At eight, the staff—college kids, by their looks–loaded the buffet table with steam trays of eggs, bacon, ham, and sausage, plus cereal and bagels. Branch picked the leanest slice of ham he could see—he needed protein for stamina—and a bagel, some mixed fruit, and another mug of coffee. He took a seat by his cellist, Asa, and they were soon joined by the smiling owner wearing an apron.
“ Jill,” Asa said, “you get the prize for keeping our tummies happy.”
Branch complimented the food.
“Just wanted to be sure everything is ok,” she said. “Your room comfortable?”
“Fine,” Branch said. “You have a nice place here. Very homey.”
“Well, I hope you enjoy it,” Jill said, and ran off to the kitchen.
“Think you can stand Harriet another day?” Asa asked.
“How about this,” Branch said. “Before the coach comes, let’s try to help her. We can stop and tune—you know, play a chord and make adjustments until we’ve got it. And go over passages where she comes in late. And let her set the tempo.”
Asa looked skeptical. “We can try.”
“She may not show,” Branch said. “Sharon said she was not well.”
“Oh, she’s never well. But she’ll show up eventually.”
As Asa predicted, Harriet wandered in after they had played one tantalizing movement of a Beethoven quartet. Branch took the lead in trying to bring Harriet into the ensemble. “Let’s slow this movement down some,” he suggested. Harriet still dragged. “Let’s go over that passage again. Everybody try to anticipate the entrances.”
Harriet was late. “Again, please.” Harriet was late again. The final chord of the first movement was badly out of tune. “Let’s play that again and hold it until we get it in tune.” Harriet held her flat E. “Up a little, Harriet.” Harriet glanced up, frowned, then played the note sharp. Just then Alicia arrived, so Branch gave up.
Alicia worked with them for half an hour, making good suggestions. When she left, they took a stretch break. Branch gently approached Harriet.
“That’s a big viola. Do you ever think about trying a smaller one?”
“I like this one. Don’t you think it has a good tone?”
“Sure, but—“
“Try it,” she said and handed it to him.
Branch played a scale up from the C-string. “Wow. This is a great instrument.” He looked for the label through the f-hole.
“It’s a Montagnana,” Harriet said smugly.
Branch knew that it was worth at least six figures. And Montagnana violas tended to be large. It was at least an inch longer than Branch’s modern instrument, and Branch’s reach was at least six inches longer than Harriet’s. What she should do is sell or loan this viola to a poor professional—a large person–and get a smaller one for herself. But Branch was beginning to understand that Harriet would resist that suggestion as she did others.
After the morning session and lunch, Gerald made some announcements. After lunch on Tuesday there would be a master class, in which each group would play one movement they had been working on, with all the coaches making comments. Beginning that afternoon, there would be a “shakeup”: they would assign new groups. Branch grasped at the hope that Harriet would be out of his group.
The afternoon session had Branch’s quintet trying to select which movement they would present to the master class. They decided on the slow movement with the violin-viola duet. Unspoken but crucial was the decision that Harriet’s playing would damage that movement least.
Dinner was a delicious fish stew. Afterward, the piano quartet of the previous night gathered again for another session of Brahms. Esme didn’t repeat her invitation, and the group dispersed around ten.
Branch, still dressed, was lying on his bed reading when he heard a knock at the door. He opened it to find Esme with a bottle and two glasses. “Here’s your rain check,” she said, and slipped inside. She was wearing a slinky green silk robe. And, as Branch soon discovered, nothing else.

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie (see archives for previous chapter)

April 7, 2010

Chapter 2.

Branch took a plane to Boston, rented a car, and headed north. By the time he reached Freeport, he had had enough driving, so he stopped at a motel and got an early start the next day. He put on a long-sleeved shirt; it felt good in the cool morning air. He arrived at the Puffin Inn around ten, still in time for registration. When he stepped out of the car, he was met by a cool breeze and a taste of salt. Beyond the parking lot and a grove of pines, he could see the bay winking in the sun. A lobster boat purred briefly, then stopped to haul in his catch. Branch smiled. So far, so good.
In reality, the Puffin Inn was a bit more frayed and chipped than the pictures suggested, but it seemed clean, and it had an atmosphere of cheerful coziness. The crowd of musicians milling around the lobby were in high spirits. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. Women hugged, men shook hands and clapped shoulders. Branch spotted only one man younger than himself, the cellist of the Camden Quartet; the other coaches were not yet in evidence. All the other men seemed to be older, retirees who could afford the time. There were more women than men, and most were in their sixties and seventies. Three women he had seen so far appeared to be under fifty, and two struck him as attractive. Maybe there were others to come. Everyone was white.
He approached the desk. The woman there, apparently one of the owners, was a woman in her thirties with a pleasant smile and a strawberry blonde ponytail who often joined in the welcoming hugs. Branch introduced himself.
“Hi, I’m Jill,” she answered. “Glad to have a newcomer. And all the way from Houston. Hope you like it here.”
“I’m sure I will. Looks like most of your guests are repeaters. That’s a good sign.”
“Yeah, we’ve been having this music party for ten years now. The Camden Quartet folks are great, and people keep coming back.” Branch received his room key, a list of fellow participants, and a schedule. The first session would begin after lunch; he would be playing viola in a Mozart quintet. Good. The coach would be the violist of the Camden Quartet.
The cellist of the Quartet was the first to approach Branch. “Hi, I’m Gerald, one of the coaches.”
“Aldo Branch. A late arriving violist.”
“Great. I remember your application. I was hoping we could have at least one quintet.”
“And I remember your performance in Houston. Spectacular Bartok.”
Gerald smiled. He was in his late thirties, stocky, with short, straight blond hair and huge hands. “Glad you liked it. You’ve come a long way.”
“This is a good time to get out of Houston.”
“We enjoyed it. Of course we were there in November, when it was a pleasant change from Bangor. That’s a great hall we played in. Are you connected to the university?”
“No, I’m a cop.”
“No kidding? There must be a story there.”
“It’s not that interesting.”
“Well, I’d like to hear it sometime.” He glanced around the lobby as a new arrival entered, a balding man in plaid pants. “I’ll let you go unpack. You can meet everybody at lunch.”
The inn was in the shape of an L: the long part was in two stories and contained the rooms; the lobby was in the corner of the L, and the dining room and kitchen were in the foot. The lobby had several groups of tables and chairs, and three bay windows that provided semi-private alcoves. A grand piano stood in a larger open area. A small bar opened off the lobby, as well as another room with a sign designating it as the music room; it contained a baby grand and a few music stands.
Branch found his room. It was small, but adequate, with a double bed, a wardrobe instead of a closet, and a small bathroom with a shower stall. His window overlooked the parking lot instead of the bay, but he didn’t mind. Unpacking didn’t take long. He was glad he brought a sweater, for the nights promised to be too cool for shirtsleeves. He felt a bit off balance without the Glock on his hip, but noticing its absence gave him pleasure. He was on vacation. No perps, no witnesses, no paperwork.
He sat on the side of his bed for a moment and looked at the schedule again. He recalled the greetings in the lobby; he seemed to be the only stranger. Would they admit him to the group? Most amateur musicians he had known were congenitally nice; but he had heard that some of these Eastern camps could be cliquish. His quintet consisted of Margo Ball and Sharon Green, violins; Asa Burger, cello; and the other violist was Harriet Downey. He would soon put faces to these names.
Lunch was buffet style, salads and sandwich makings—it was abundant and looked fresh. When everyone had found a seat, Gerald stood up and made a short welcoming speech. “Almost everyone has been here at least once before, but if you see someone you don’t know, please introduce yourselves. I know of only one person really new to us, Aldo Branch, a violist from Houston. Wave, Aldo. Everybody please make him welcome.” At Branch’s table the bald guy with plaid pants was Asa Burger, the cellist in his afternoon quintet; Sheila was the short violinist with the slight British accent; Myron was the violinist who looked like Einstein. All had to be in their seventies.
He spotted the two attractive younger women at the next table, and could tell they were furtively checking him out. One was a small, neat woman in jeans and a sweatshirt; she had short brown hair and a red dot on her left jaw—the mark of a violinist or violist. The other was a redhead with full, wiry hair flecked with gray, freckles, and large green eyes. She was tall and fuller figured, but by no means fat, and wore a khaki skirt and green t-shirt. Maybe a cellist.
Another woman entered—or, as Branch thought, made an entrance. She flowed in, filmy pastel blouse and skirt fluttering around an elegantly slim body. She languidly picked up a plate and looked at the food as if she were not sure if she would actually eat any of it. Sheila sniffed and said, “Esme, late as usual.” Myron and Asa were watching her intently. Branch realized he was as well. She was beautiful in a way that reminded Branch of the women in Pre-Raphaelite paintings: long wavy auburn hair, full red lips, and a square, cleft chin.
After putting a few bits of food on her plate, she looked around for a seat. As her eyes found Branch they seemed to widen. There was an empty place at the neighboring table, but she moved straight toward Branch and put her plate beside his. She pulled the empty chair up, murmuring, “Excuse me. Hope you don’t mind.” Asa clearly didn’t mind, and shifted his chair to make room. She turned pale blue eyes on Branch and spoke in an alto whisper. “I’m Esme. Your first time at the Music Party?” A light flowery scent drifted toward him.
“Yes. I’m Aldo. Viola.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Aldo Viola?” She smiled.
“Aldo Branch. I play the viola. What do you play?”
“Piano. Where are you from?”
Branch had a fleeting memory of Allegra, his past obsession, who was a pianist. “Uh, Houston. Texas.” He felt himself blushing. Or was she radiating heat?
“You’re a long way from home. What do you do there?”
“I’m a cop.”
Asa broke in. “We’re playing quintets this afternoon.”
Esme gave quick glance around the table. “Hi Asa. Hello, everyone.” Then she refocused on Branch. “Are you a detective?”
“Uh hunh.”
“Right again.”
Branch recovered his composure. “Not really. It’s not like TV. There’s usually a lot of drudgery.” He recalled his last case and his terrifying ride with a huge thug called Boomer. “Sometimes it can be scary, but for every moment of panic there are hours of boredom.”
Esme penetrated her moistened lips with a grape. “What was your scariest case?”
Branch thought about the murder of the Kyoto String Quartet. He knew that all these musicians would have heard about it, and his involvement would make him a celebrity at the Music Party. He decided not to mention it.
“Well, once I was surprised by a drug dealer. I walked into a room I thought was empty, and there he was with a big .357 magnum. We stared at each other for a long time. I was afraid to move. Thought he’d shoot me. Then I realized that he was dead.”
Esme’s eyes widened and she breathed a quick “Oh!”
Gerald stood and rapped on a glass. “Time to move, folks. My colleagues have finally arrived.” Two women and a man standing behind Gerald grinned and waved. “Everybody remember Alicia? She’ll take the Mozart quintet, and later on the Beethoven trio.” He looked at a round-faced woman with short black curls and a sweatshirt that read “Violas are no joke.” He then gestured toward a smiling young woman who held a tow-headed four- or five-year-old girl by the hand. “Phoebe will take the Brahms quartet and the Schubert. Everybody remember our daughter Elsie?” Several of the old-timers waved and said, “Hi Elsie,” who shyly waved back. Gerald continued: “Alan will take the Shostakovich and the Mendelssohn. Ok?” Alan, the first violinist, was tall and lean, with dark hair falling into his eyes. “I’ll take the piano quartet now and the Haydn quartet later. So go have fun, but play in tune!”
Esme leaned toward Branch. “We’ll have to play together soon.” She ate another grape and rose. Branch, Asa, and Myron followed her with their eyes.
Branch shook his head slightly as he turned to Asa. “Where do we go? And who else is in the group?”
“I’ll show you. Hey, Margo,” he called, and the small woman with short brown hair turned toward them. “Come meet Aldo. Sharon! Where’s Harriet?”
A grandmotherly gray-haired woman, comfortably padded, replied. “Harriet was a bit carsick and lay down for a while. Didn’t want lunch. She’ll show up to play.”
Margo and Sharon approached and shook Branch’s hand. Margo had a firm, warm hand, and an amused smile; Branch saw a quick intelligence in her eyes. She wore no makeup, and was prettier than he first thought.
“We’re in the boathouse,” Asa said, pointing to a weathered building down closer to the bay. “It’s a great place, lots of room upstairs, great view. Only problem is, it distracts you from the score.”
“I’ll get my viola and meet you there.” Branch smiled at the group.
“Bring a stand,” Margo said. “I’ll get the parts.”
Branch got his viola and music stand from his room and headed toward the boathouse. A broad lawn sloped down from the inn to the inlet that opened into the larger bay. The grove of pines began at the edge of the lawn to the left; on the right was the parking lot and the road that led to Puffin Bay village, about a mile away.
As he walked, he thought about the women he had just met. Esme was striking and beautiful, and seemed to be interested in him. He felt an air of sensuality about her, palpable as her perfume. And though he would have had difficulty offering a reason, he also felt there was a shallowness, an impermanence about her. If he fantasized about a light summer fling without commitment or attachment, she might be the one. Margo, on the other hand, seemed interesting. I’d better stop there, he thought. The redhead he hadn’t met was also attractive. But no flirting, no entanglements. He’d have to play it by ear.
The musicians gathered in a large room above the storage area for the boats, three little Sunfish, which were still anchored in the inlet. Other boats were strung out along the curve of the bay, and further out was a good-sized yawl. They made a nice sight from the big windows, bobbing in the bay. They unpacked their instruments and began to tune to Asa’s cello. Harriet, the other violist, had not yet appeared.
“I knocked on her door,” Sharon said. “She said she’d be along in a minute.”
“I know about Harriet’s minutes,” Margo said, “so I picked up some quartets. I’ll bet we get in at least one whole movement before she shows.” She passed out parts. “Might as well get in the Mozart groove. How about the ‘Dissonant’?”
“Good choice,” Branch said. Branch had played the work many times, and it presented few technical difficulties, so he could concentrate on phrasing and attention to the others. He was confident, but his palms sweated a bit, as they usually did when he first played with new people. They began, Margo playing first violin, an arrangement she and Sharon seemed to assume. Asa’s cello began the slow introduction with a heartbeat pulse, and the others made their famous dissonant entrances. Then the allegro began. Branch was impressed. Margo played cleanly and confidently. Sharon was a little too quiet, and Asa’s cello grumbled a little, but they were finding each other quickly and beginning to make music. After his first triplet run, Margo gave him an approving glance.
When they finished the movement, Alicia, who had slipped in unnoticed, said “Bravo!”
“Yeah, not bad,” Asa said.
Alicia extended her hand to Branch. “You must be Aldo. Glad to have a new face, especially a good viola.” Alicia had a rich alto voice, appropriate for a violist.
“Thanks. I enjoyed your performance in Houston.”
“We had a good time there.” She looked around. “Where’s Harriet? Thought this was a quintet.”
“She’s a little under the weather,” Sharon said. “She said she’d be here in a bit.”
“Here she is,” Asa said, as a dumpy woman with a big case came up the stairs, puffing.
“Sorry. I was just feeling punk. But I think I’ll make it.” Her voice was whiny, Branch thought. She was in her fifties, with thin gray hair; she wore a yellow jumpsuit, and hid behind big glasses. Branch rose and held out his hand. She ducked her eyes and muttered “Hi,” hanging onto her case with both hands.
“Ok, let’s get on with the quintet,” Alicia said. “The big C major one, right? Who’s playing first viola?”
“I’m not up to that today,” Harriet said.
“Then I guess it’s me,” Branch said.
Harriet set up her stand, hauled out a viola Branch thought too big for her, and tuned, sighing heavily from time to time. Branch had also played this part many times. The challenge with Mozart was always to make good clean phrases, but there was an added challenge in the slow movement, which was essentially a duet between the first violin and first viola. There were some turns that were difficult to play fast enough to fit in a reasonable tempo. Branch managed to nail the passages, and earned another approving glance from Margo.
Alicia stopped them from time to time to suggest adjustments to the balance and phrasing, mostly directed at Sharon and Asa. Harriet, to Branch’s consternation, dragged and played out of tune. Alicia didn’t comment; perhaps the coaches had given up on her in times past. A few times Sharon quietly said, “Come on, Harriet,” but without effect. Branch thought ruefully that they would have a fine quartet without Harriet.
The session ended about an hour before dinner was scheduled. On the way back to the inn, Margo caught up with Branch. “You play very well,” she said. “Sorry about Harriet.”
“You play fantastically. Sure you’re not a pro?”
“I used to be, but I got tired of orchestra work.” They chatted about orchestra versus chamber music, and their preference for the latter. Margo confirmed Branch’s conjecture about Harriet. Everyone put up with her playing and her hypochondria and her wet blanket personality because she was a big donor to the Music Party and a generous patron to the Camden Quartet.
Just before they entered the inn, Margo stopped Branch with a hand on his arm and said quietly, “I may be out of line for saying this, but everybody noticed Esme zeroing in on you. She’s married, but that doesn’t stop her. Watch your step.”
Branch wasn’t sure what to say, so he just said “Thanks.”