Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

Chapter 6.

John, the funeral parlor director, had not taken the time to shave, but he had put on his professional dark suit and tie. His assistant, a gangly young man with acne, looked as if he were sleepwalking. They wheeled in a collapsible gurney, took it to Harriet’s room, and gently laid her on it, covering the body with a sheet. The people assembled in the lobby watched silently by the window as they slid the gurney into the waiting hearse. After it drove away, the group turned and looked at the sheriff.
The sheriff took off his hat and scratched his graying uncombed hair. “Well, folks. Sorry this business has to interrupt your music and fun. Maybe you can get back to your music later today. Fact is, I can’t let anybody leave for a while, so you might as well get back to it. Now I will need to talk to everybody, and I’ll start soon’s I get another cup of Jill’s good coffee. Don’t wake up any more people. I’ll talk to as many of you as is already up. Then I’ll talk to some more. Don’t know who done this, but we’ll do our best to find out. May be one of you, maybe not. May be somebody outside, somebody from away. I know it’s human nature to talk about this, but I wish you wouldn’t. Just get rumors going.” He looked around. “Jill, we’ll use the bar, if that’s ok.”
“Sure, sheriff.” The bar was a small room off the lobby with two tables, padded chairs, and a door that could be closed.
“I’ve already heard from a couple of people, but I’d like to hear them again.” He nodded at Sharon. “You first, please ma’m.”
Branch spoke. “Would you like me to sit in with you, sheriff?”
The sheriff looked hard at Branch for a moment. “Thank you, but you’re on vacation. I’ll talk to you after this lady, if you please.” Sharon followed him into the bar.
So I’m a suspect too, Branch thought. Well, that’s as it should be. Esme came and sat by Branch. “I’m scared,” she whispered. “Suppose it’s a serial killer who will just pick somebody at random?”
“I think whoever did it would not try here again. Everybody is too alert. Just keep your door locked. Want some coffee?”
“Yes, please.”
As he went to get coffee, Branch looked around to see who was not yet up. He didn’t see Asa or Myron. Or Daphne. Gerald and Alan Markham, two of the coaches, were just coming in, brows contracted. They came straight to Branch. He led them to the table and gave Esme her coffee, and told them what he knew. Their concern became more and more evident. “If you’re worried that the sheriff will shut down the Music Party,” Branch, said, “don’t. He wants us all to stay, so he suggested we resume regular activities.”
“That’s good,” Gerald said, “but it’s still a terrible thing with bad implications for the future. Harriet’s support was very important to us, and this—this tragedy may affect attendance next year. This quartet isn’t getting rich.”
“Well, if we can solve the murder promptly, and it’s clear that it’s unlikely to happen again, it might not be so bad.” Branch understood their commercial worry, but he wanted to say that a human being, however flawed, had been brutally killed, and that should be their main concern. But he kept quiet.
Esme said, “I’d better call my husband.”
“Wait and ask the sheriff. Do you want him to worry unnecessarily?”
Esme gave a half smile. “Maybe I would.”
Gerald and Alan went to get coffee. Sharon emerged from the bar, wiping her eyes. Without speaking to anyone, she headed toward the rooms.
“Guess it’s my turn,” Branch said, and approached the door of the bar. He looked in. The sheriff was seated at one of the tables writing and scratching his head. “Are you ready for me?”
“Ok. Come have a seat.”
Branch sat. The sheriff kept writing for a while. Then he looked up. “Tell me again from the time the lady woke you up.”
Branch repeated his story, including what Sharon and Margo and Sheila said to him.
“Got any ideas why anybody would kill the lady?” He looked at a note. “Miss Downey?”
“No. She was not popular. She was a bad musician. But none of us would be alive if people got killed over wrong notes.”
“But she pissed people off.”
“Sure. She didn’t try very hard to get better. The kind of music we like to play is a team effort. If one person is bad, it makes the group sound bad, and that irritates the rest. But I’ve been playing for years, and I’ve never heard of anybody being slugged, much less killed, for playing badly. In Houston, I’ve known people to kill for strange reasons, like because they had too few beans in their chili. But these musicians just don’t do that.”
“So you think she was killed for some other reason.”
“Yes, but I don’t know what.”
“I gather from the lady I just talked to that she was a lesbian.”
“Sharon—Ms. Green–admitted that to me.”
“You think that might be a motive? Jealousy?”
“I doubt it. She and Sharon seemed to be a committed couple. I can’t imagine that Sharon had any competition.”
“You ain’t gay, are you, Sergeant?”
“Me? No.” Branch wondered where this was going.
“Any other gay folks here?”
Branch hesitated. Daphne had said she was, but was it his job to out her to the sheriff? “You’ll have to ask them,” he said finally.
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t know,” he stressed. “I don’t want to encourage suspicion or rumor.”
Sheriff Bacon grunted and scribbled a note. He looked up and asked, “If this were your case—and it ain’t, by the way—what would you do now?”
“Pretty much what you’re doing now, while you wait for the medical examiner to give you an idea of what the weapon was that killed her.” I’d dust for prints and look for hair and fabric, he thought, but he’d already suggested that.
“Who’s your boss down in Houston?”
“Lieutenant Narciso Sandoval.”
“That Mexican?”
“He was born in Texas.”
“Spell that name for me, please.’
Branch spelled the name and gave a phone number.
Sheriff Bacon wrote briefly, scratched his head, and said, “Guess that’s it for now. Send me in that lady who heard something, if you please.”
“Ms. Mackay—Sheila.”
“Ok. I’ll talk to you again later.”
Branch left and nodded to Sheila, who got up wearily and entered the bar. Branch was suddenly sleepy, despite the coffee. Margo got up and went to him. Esme watched them.
“Any ideas? Do you think he has a clue?” Margo asked.
Branch couldn’t help but smile. “How do you mean that?”
She smiled back. “Do you have a clue?”
“Maybe one. But I’m going to try to get back to sleep. I’d recommend that to you too.”
Just then Daphne entered, and looked around, surprised that so many people were up so early, some in their pajamas. “Did I miss a slumber party?” Then the grim looks on most faces seemed to register with her. “What happened?” She approached Margo and Branch.
“Sit down,” Branch said. “Harriet was murdered last night.”
Daphne sat when she absorbed the news. She shook her head with a half smile. Then her eyes widened. “You’re not kidding. Oh my God.” She went pale and sagged in the chair.
Esme stepped quickly to her. “Lean over,” she said, holding Daphne’s shoulder. “Head between your knees.”
Esme held her in that position for a while. Daphne soon revived, leaned back, and looked pleadingly at Branch. “You know I was just joking. What I said last night. I didn’t really want her dead.”
“Sure. Everybody says things they don’t mean literally.”
“I admit I was pissed off. But I wouldn’t kill anybody.”
“Sure. But be prepared. The sheriff is here, questioning everybody.”
“Oh God.”
“Don’t worry. But be sure you tell him about what you said and explain. Don’t leave anything for him to find out from somebody else.”
“Oh. Ok.” She held her head in her hands. “I just have trouble getting my mind around this.”
“You need some coffee,” Margo said, and went to fetch some.
Branch said to Esme, “You and Margo take care of Daphne. I’m beat.”
“We all are. Go rest while you can.”
Branch went back to his room, kicked off his shoes and lay down. He thought sleep would come quickly, but it didn’t. One detail bounced around his head. The sound of a string that Sheila heard. Somebody could have been carrying an instrument back to a room and brushed a string in moving it; but if Sheila had the time right, it would have been late for anybody to have been playing, or to have had any reason for carrying an instrument. And if it were in a case, it wouldn’t have sounded. And if the other sounds Sheila heard were related to the murder, the sound of the string would be related too. It didn’t make sense.
A knock on his door woke Branch up from a dream about an angry quartet poking at Harriet with the points of their bows. He staggered to the door.
Margo stood there, looking tired and worn. “The sheriff wants to talk to you again.”
Branch sighed. “Please tell him I’ve got to get a shower first so I’ll be conscious. How’s Daphne?”
“Coming around. She’s talked to the sheriff.”
“Did she say anything?”
“She said he was curious about her sex life.” She made a face. “She said he didn’t make much of the fight last night.”
“How are you?” He had an impulse to reach out and touch her cheek, but he resisted.
“Ok. I didn’t have much to tell him. He asked me to tell about the fight and what Daphne said.”
“Thanks. You going to get some rest?”
“I’m going to try.” She gave a weary smile.
“See you later.”
Branch stripped and stepped into the shower. He soaked a long time, gradually clearing his mind of cobwebs. He thought about his dream. You couldn’t kill someone with a bow—it would break before it penetrated. Maybe if someone had a blade in a hollow bow, like a sword cane. No, that’s absurd. And who would do it? No likely suspect came to mind. The string sound still plagued him.
He dressed and returned to the lobby, where he poured a fresh mug of coffee. A few people were sitting around talking quietly, waiting to be interviewed. Branch thought of a doctor’s waiting room. It was now about nine. Branch grabbed a bagel and ate it with his coffee. The door to the bar opened and Myron emerged, shaking his head.
Branch looked in at the door. Sheriff Bacon waved him in. He looked tired and frustrated. “I like doing for myself,” he said. “I’ve run this county just fine with two deputies for a long time.” He looked at Branch and frowned. “But we have to deal with people from away now. Tourism is big business here. So I called your boss in Houston. He says you’re pretty good, and not likely to kill any civilians. He said you should cooperate with me.”
“I’ll do that. How?”
The sheriff rubbed his head. “I wish I knew. I can’t see a clear motive. But I wonder if it has anything to do with her being queer?”
“I couldn’t say.” Branch looked into his empty cup. “There’s a big gay community in Houston. They rarely gave us any trouble. They figured in crime mostly as victims. Some young toughs would think it fun to beat one up or roll one now and then. I guess I can think of a few violent episodes between gays, and I remember one homicide. Jealous lovers. But they weren’t in the same league with straight murderers. I’ll bet that at least one of your homicides up here was an estranged husband or boyfriend killing his ex-wife or girlfriend.”
“You’re right. Both of ‘em, actually.”
“Only two homicides?”
“Ayuh. Only two murders of any sort in my twenty years in the business.”
“And neither involved gays.”
“No. We’ve had a few queer folk come up here from the cities and get into fights. No murders yet.”
“And we’re talking about men, right? I never heard of gay women fighting or killing each other,” Branch said.
“Guess I haven’t either. But that’s all I’ve got.”
“How about money? I understand that Ms. Downey was rich.”
“May be. But it don’t seem like anybody here was in line to get any of it. Ms. Green, her—whatdoyercallum—her partner, says that her money goes to the family. Nothing to her. Course we’ll have to check that out.”
“Sure. If anything, the people here lose,” Branch said. “She gave money to the Camden Quartet and to this Music Party. Now that she’s dead, that’s gone.”
They sat silently. “Will you let me know when you get the report about the wound and the possible weapon?” Branch asked.
“Ayuh.”
“When do you think that might come in?”
“Maybe this afternoon, maybe tomorrow. Depends on how busy they are.”
“Anything from your interviews so far?”
“Not much, except from the lady who heard noises.” He glanced at his notes, turned a page, and smiled. “That redheaded Irish girl, Daphne Kennedy. She told me about the squabble last night, and about saying things about the victim. I don’t take that too seriously. Other folks confirm what she said, and everybody thinks she was just blowing off steam. My wife’s like that. Says she’ll kill me in my sleep if I track dirt in her parlor.”
Branch smiled.
“Only thing,” Bacon said, looking more thoughtful, “she’s queer too. Too bad, pretty girl like that.”
“I think Daphne’s irritation with Harriet was musical, not sexual.”
“Probably. But I just don’t understand those queer folks. Maybe she had a thing for Ms. Downey. I don’t know.”

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One Response to “Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie”

  1. Tuesday Coffee Break: With Strings | Only My Issue Says:

    […] Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie « Musical Mysteries […]

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