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

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.”
“Fascinating.”
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.”
“Homicide?”
“Right again.”
“Thrilling!”
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.”

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