Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

Chapter 7.

Gerald posted a fresh assignment sheet for the afternoon session. Phoebe Payne, the Camden Quartet second violinist, would be coaching Branch’s group, which included Daphne and Margo. They would work on the string trio by Dohnanyi, the “Serenade.”
That would be a challenge, Branch thought. He could manage his part pretty well, he thought, but the scherzo movement was tricky. He hoped they wouldn’t want to go too fast. The others were good players. It would take concentration, which would take his mind off the murder investigation. Sometimes when his mind kept circling around the same aspects of a problem without a solution, it helped to get away from it and come back fresh. Besides, the medical examiner’s report might come in and suggest something.
Daphne and Margo looked a little better. Both had had time to rest, and Daphne had welcomed Branch’s report that Bacon was not taking her words about Harriet too seriously. The coach, Phoebe Payne, was a quiet, serious young woman, a fine musician, and attractive in a young mother way, which she was. Her husband, Gerald, the cellist, had brought one of his students along to spend time with their daughter, Elsie. Elsie had become a mascot of the group. Besides showing her drawings, she liked to tell the participants about the imaginary adventures of her stuffed dolphin, named Ariel after the Disney mermaid. The many gray heads in the group were charmed.
Today, Elsie had come to the session with Phoebe. Phoebe apologized, saying that the student sitter had an unbreakable appointment. Elsie, who had obviously been told to sit quietly, did so for a while, but then began humming audibly to Ariel. Branch and Margo smiled, but Daphne looked irritated. When she missed an entrance, she said she was distracted by Elsie’s humming. Phoebe admonished Elsie and told her to keep quiet and look at one of the books she brought. This worked for a while, but during a soft passage, Branch could hear her reading the book to Ariel in a whisper. Daphne turned to Elsie and said “Shh!” angrily. Elsie began to cry.
Everything stopped. Phoebe was distressed and apologetic. Margo tried to calm Elsie and stop the tears by complimenting her sweater. Daphne was quiet, but with compressed lips and frowning brow.
Finally Daphne burst out: “Phoebe, why don’t you take Elsie for a walk. We’ll just practice on our own.”
“Maybe I’d better,” Phoebe said. “This won’t happen again.”
After they left, Daphne said, “Can’t stand kids.”
“I thought she did pretty well for a five-year-old,” Margo said. “Did you sit quietly all the time when you were five?”
“Ahh, lay off,” Daphne said. “Let’s get back to some music. Why aren’t we a quartet, anyway?”
“Guess Gerald had to do some juggling with the groups. I’m not sure Sharon has been up to playing,” Branch said. “Don’t you like the Dohnanyi?”
“It’s ok. I’d rather do the Mozart Divertimento or one of the Beethoven trios.”
“I wouldn’t mind. How about you, Margo?”
“I’d like to finish this, now that we’ve started. Then maybe we’ll have time for something else.”
“Oh, all right.” Daphne was still irritated, and showed it by digging in the floor with the endpin of her cello. “Damn. Where’s that hole? I keep slipping.”
Branch looked at the metal pin that extended from the bottom of Daphne’s cello. It was about the diameter of a pencil, with a fairly sharp point at the end. It could be raised or lowered, or even removed, by loosening a thumbscrew on the end button. The sound of a string, followed by a stab wound that didn’t leave a slash—could Harriet have been killed with a cello endpin? So many thoughts tumbled along after that question, that Branch went into a kind of trance; he was surprised when Margo nudged him.
“Are you with us, Aldo? We’re ready.”
“Sorry. Just thinking.”
“Don’t think,” Daphne said with a crooked smile, “play.”
They played through the Dohnanyi, and then played the Beethoven C-minor trio. It was an early work, but that key seemed to bring out Beethoven’s power, as it did later in the Fifth Symphony and other works. The three players ended the session in a better mood.
Branch eagerly took off for his pre-dinner walk. He had much to sort out. He’d better call the sheriff and see if he heard from the medical examiner. But who could have used a cello endpin to kill? A cellist? Duh. But that depends on who had access to the cellos. Which cello provided the pin? Maybe there would be enough of a speck of blood that it would fluoresce under black light. Maybe the sheriff could get hold of a black light.
Esme caught up with him and grabbed his arm. A little breathlessly, she said, “I guess everybody suspects we’ve been fooling around. Might as well enjoy each other’s company while we can.”
“Fine with me,” Branch said. “Did you get some rest?”
“A little.”
“Coming to visit tonight?”
She didn’t answer for a moment. Looking at the ground, she said, “I finally called my husband. He’s worried and wants me to leave.”
“Did you tell him that the sheriff might not allow it?”
“He said he might talk to his lawyer. He said if I’m not a suspect or material witness the sheriff can’t keep me.”
“Do you want to go?”
She squeezed his arm. “No.”
“You’re not still scared?”
“Yes, but your presence helps.”
“So come visit tonight. I’ll keep you from the foggy, foggy dew.”
“What?”
“It’s an old song. About protective males and the price of their protection.”
“Ah. What’s your price?”
Branch squeezed her hand and leered, wagging his eyebrows. Esme laughed.
They walked silently for a moment. Branch said, “Tell me more about your husband. I don’t know whether to abuse him or feel sorry for him.”
“Oh, feel sorry for him. He’s not cruel. Not physically, anyway. He’s just wrapped up in himself and his work.”
“Which is?”
“Ugh. Business.” She made a dismissive wave. “Stocks, bonds, hedge funds. Real estate. Whatever he thinks will make money.”
“So you don’t have to work.”
“No, not exactly. I have to put on fancy dinners and smile at a lot of boring men. But music helps, and I have time to practice.”
“What did you do before you married?”
“This and that. I was a practical nurse. Not an R.N.”
“So you knew how to treat Daphne’s faint.”
She looked surprised. “Doesn’t everybody know about that?”
“No, apparently. How did you meet your husband?”
“You’re getting boring.”
“I’m not bored.”
“I am.”
Branch grabbed her and kissed her hard.
“That’s better,” she said, with a gasp.
“Better get back. It’s almost dinner time.” They walked back in silence. Branch savored Esme’s kiss and the feel of her body. It was easier to cuckold Esme’s husband since he was an unknown, and, at least according to Esme, neglectful. But he still itched at Branch’s conscience, though not enough to detract from the pleasure Branch took in Esme’s body, and to a somewhat lesser extent, her music.
Gerald tried to seem jolly as he addressed the group waiting for their food. “Folks, I know we need a little cheering up after our tragic loss. So I asked for the lobster tonight instead of Saturday. Enjoy!”
The staff ran in and passed out plastic bibs, nutcrackers, and picks, followed by platters of boiled lobster and dishes of corn on the cob. A hearty, messy dinner ensued. One of the cellists, Eric Larson from Minnesota, had never tackled a whole lobster before. He got advice, some of it conflicting, about how to disassemble the lobster and get the meat. Blackberry pie with ice cream ended the meal.
Before playing piano quartets, Branch excused himself to wash his greasy hands. In his room, he called the sheriff.
“Sheriff, it’s Branch. Have you heard from the medical examiner?”
“I heard, but I don’t have any news. He said he hadn’t got to Ms. Downey yet. Expects to in the morning.”
“Too bad. I’m eager to hear. By the way, do you have a black light?”
“A what?”
“A black light. Traces of blood will fluoresce under black light.”
“Do tell. Is it the light that makes those kids’ posters glow?”
“That’s it. Think you can get hold of one?”
“What for? We know there was blood on the body and in the room.”
“There might be some on the murder weapon. I have a notion about what that might be, depending on the medical report.”
“Hmm. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Bring it out tomorrow as soon as you get the medical report. Or call me and I’ll come get it.”
“I ain’t that busy.”
“And sheriff, I know most of the folks here are of no use to the case. But repeat your order that they all stay put for a while longer.”
“Can’t hold ‘em forever.”
“True. But the Music Party has another week to run. Most don’t want to leave. Maybe we’ll know something by then.”

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