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

Chapter 5.

Branch pulled on a sweatshirt and stepped into his shoes. He followed Sharon down the hall to an open door. Inside he saw the body of Harriet sprawled on her back sideways on her bed. A wet bloodstain spread across her nightgown, centered on her heart. Branch knew she was dead, but he felt her carotid artery to make sure. “Don’t touch anything,” he said. “Go to my room and call the police.”
“An ambulance?”
“No. Too late for that. I’ll stay here and secure the scene.” Sharon hurried off. Branch looked at the body. Harriet’s eyes were open, and her expression seemed caught between surprise and pain. She was a bad musician, Branch thought, but not so bad that she should be killed.
He looked around the room. There was no sign of forced entry. No sign of struggle. From the position of the body, Branch gathered that she had got out of bed to face her attacker, and the force of the blow had knocked her back on the bed. She must have been stabbed. He could smell no gunpowder, though it could have dissipated by now. But if she had been shot without a silencer, someone would have heard. And there was no sign of the bullet having gone through her into the wall or window behind her. He could confirm his guess with a look through the hole in her nightgown, but he thought he should wait for the local police and medical examiner. He could tell that the hole in the gown was round, not the slash a knife would make. Maybe she was shot with a silencer and the bullet was still inside. No, a caliber small enough to stay inside wouldn’t have had the force to knock her back—she would just have crumpled to the floor.
Sharon reappeared. “Is she really dead?”
“I’m afraid so. Are the police on the way?”
“The sheriff is. Puffin Bay is too small for a police force.” Sharon made as if to sit in a chair in the room.
“Sorry. Better not sit there or touch anything.”
Sharon backed out of the room and leaned on the corridor wall. “I can’t get it in my head that she’s gone. Who would do such a thing?”
“I hope the police can find out.”
“I know some people didn’t like her. They didn’t know her good side. But who could kill her?” The shock had begun to wear off and Sharon started to weep. “Oh, God. What am I going to do?”
“You’re going to have to tell how you found her many times before this is over,” Branch said. “You might as well start with me. What made you visit her at one in the morning?”
Sharon looked at Branch and spoke with bitterness. “The same thing that makes Esme visit you.”
Branch was taken aback. He had thought they had been more circumspect. “You were lovers.”
“Yes. We knew everyone knew, but Harriet wouldn’t share a room. So we would arrange little visits when—when we felt like it.” She looked down and her mouth curved in disgust. “So I guess I’ll have to tell this leering sheriff.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“So did you have a key?”
“No. She didn’t lock the door. I just walked in—and—and found her. I knew you were a policeman, so I came immediately to you.”
“You didn’t touch anything.”
“I spoke to her, and then I felt her pulse. But all that blood—“
“So you felt her wrist? Which one?”
“There. Her left wrist.”
Branch pondered. She probably hadn’t disturbed much. “How far away is your room?”
“Three doors down. On the left.”
“And you didn’t hear anything?”
“Not a sound.”
“Do you know who’s in the rooms on either side?”
“I’m not sure. Sheila, there, I think. And Margo there.”
“I guess it’s time to wake them.” Branch knocked on Margo’s door. He heard movement inside.
“Who is it?”
“Margo, it’s Aldo.”
She opened the door, blinking, but with an expression of almost pleasant anticipation. She had on a short, sleeveless nightgown. Branch had a second of male interest. Then she saw Sharon. “What is it? It’s late.”
“Serious business. Harriet has been murdered.”
Margo’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my God. Are you serious?”
“Yes. Did you hear anything at all next door?”
“I don’t think so.” She frowned. “No. Nothing. I sleep pretty soundly at first.” Then she looked again at the distraught Sharon. “Sharon, I’m so sorry.”
“You may as well dress and get ready for the sheriff, who should be along in a while.”
“Ok. Sharon, you look like you’re about to drop. Come rest in my room while I dress.”
“Thank you,” Sharon said, and went in.
“Is that Sheila’s room on the other side?”
“Yes. I’ll get dressed.”
Branch knocked on the other door and roused Sheila, who also reacted with shock and dismay. But when Branch asked if she heard anything, she answered, “I may have.”
“What?” Branch asked.
“Well, around half-past twelve, I thought I heard voices, but I couldn’t make out any words or tell who it was. But I had heard voices before, so I didn’t think anything about it.” She raised her eyebrow and Branch thought about Sharon. “Then I heard the bed creak, but that’s not unusual either. But then I did hear something strange. It sounded like a string.”
“A string?”
“Yes, an instrument string. You know, when you accidentally pluck the string when you pick up your fiddle.”
“Nothing else?”
“I may have heard the door close. Then everything was quiet, and I eventually got to sleep.”
“Better get dressed. I think I see the sheriff’s lights through your window.” Colored lights swept across the curtains in Sheila’s room across from the open door. Branch went to the door to guide the sheriff.
Jill, the owner, had been roused, and met Branch at the door. “What’s going on? Is that the sheriff?”
“Yes. Harriet Downey seems to have been murdered.”
Jill reacted as Sheila and Margo had. After the usual questions about who could have done it, she asked, “Will we have to close?”
“I don’t know. Depends on the sheriff.”
The sheriff at that moment came up to the door. He was hastily dressed in blue jeans with his uniform shirt not tucked in and a Smoky Bear hat on his head. He looked middle-aged, with a barrel chest and a fringe of beard and no moustache, like an old sea dog or Amish farmer. “Jill,” he said, addressing the owner, “what’s the trouble?”
“Sheriff Bacon,” she said, “this is Sergeant Branch, one of our guests. But he’s a policeman. I’ll let him tell you.”
Branch held out his hand. “Aldo Branch, sheriff. Looks like a homicide. I’ll show you.”
Sheriff Bacon shook Branch’s hand briefly, looking at his face skeptically. “How do. Let’s see what you got.” In his heavy Maine accent, the last word sounded like “go-aht” to Branch.
“I’ve talked to the woman who found the body, and I’ve warned everyone not to touch anything. I’m on vacation, but I’ll be glad to help in any way I can.”
“Where you from?”
“Houston, Texas. I’m a homicide detective.”
“You’re a long way from home.”
“I wanted a change. Here we are.”
Sheriff Bacon looked around the room before he looked at the body. Then he boldly grabbed Harriet’s wrist and felt for a pulse. “Dead all right.” To Branch’s concern, he pulled at the hole in the nightgown in order to see the wound. “Looks like a damn elephant gun. Wicked big hole.”
Branch explained his reasoning for concluding that it was a stab wound, however unusual.
“Big gun would knock her down.”
“Nobody heard a shot, and I doubt if you’ll see an exit wound.”
“You didn’t look?”
“I touched as little as possible and moved nothing.”
The sheriff grunted. Then he grasped Harriet’s arm and turned her on her side. “Yep. No exit wound.” He looked around at the anxious women watching him. Margo and Sheila had dressed; Sharon was still in her robe. “Any witnesses?”
Branch explained that Sharon found her, and that Sheila had heard something. They repeated their stories. The sheriff covered a yawn as he listened.
Esme appeared in her flowing silk robe. “What’s all this noise about? It’s only two AM.”
When Branch told her that Harriet had been murdered, she reacted more emotionally than anyone so far, immediately bursting into tears, grabbing Branch’s arm and pressing her face into his shoulder. “I can’t stand it. Who could have done such a thing?” She turned up her tear-stained face and said, “I’m going to call my husband to come get me.”
The sheriff looked up sharply. “Better not, ma’m. I can’t have anybody leave for a while. Got a lot of questions to ask.”
“Will you have someone guard us? There may be a serial killer loose.”
“Ma’m, we’ll do what we can. You folks just need to stay quiet.”
Branch asked, as deferentially as he could, if the medical examiner should be summoned.
“He’ll have to come from Augusta. I’ll just get John at the funeral parlor to come get the lady and keep her there until he comes.”
“Do you have any crime scene people to check for prints, hair, fabric?”
Sheriff Bacon turned to Branch and said with bite in his voice. “This ain’t no big city. We do the best we can with what we’ve got. I’ll see if they got anybody in Augusta they’ll let come down. If not, we’ll have to do without. We don’t have many murders around here. Not like TV.” He turned to the owner. “Jill, how about puttin’ on the coffee? Got to make some calls. Got to get something from the car. Meet you all in the lobby.”
Branch waited at Harriet’s door until the sheriff returned and did what Branch thought he might: drape yellow “crime scene” tape across the door. Branch followed the sheriff to the lobby and perked up at the aroma of brewing coffee. A few other participants had heard something and had gathered around, some dressed, some in pajamas and robes. Whispers rapidly spread the news, and some went to rouse those still asleep.
The sheriff got a mug of coffee and took a sip. “Wicked good, Jill,” he said to the owner. He picked up the phone at the registration desk. “John? Bacon here. Sorry to wake you, but I got a dead lady you need to take care of. No, better not wait, and no, you can’t do anything with her. Got to wait on the medical examiner. Yep. Murder victim.”

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