Archive for July, 2010

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

July 29, 2010

Chapter 15.

Westerly was a bit larger than Weekapaug; it was not on the seacoast, but the Pawcatuck River ran by it and widened out before it met the Atlantic. Rain was now blowing in from the sea. Branch stopped for a quick bite of lunch at a fast-food place, and looked up Harriet’s lawyers, Lockhart and Leonard. He found them in the middle of town in a solid four-story building.
The receptionist was a middle-aged woman in a dyed pageboy and navy suit. She looked at Branch’s damp hair and his credentials skeptically and compressed her already thin lips. “I can explain,” Branch said. “I was on the scene in Puffin Bay when Ms. Harriet Downey, your client, was murdered. The sheriff deputized me to help with the investigation. I also have a letter from the sheriff.” He produced the letter.
She looked at the letter, then at her desk log. “The attorney who is in charge of Ms. Downey’s estate is in conference right now. If you will wait, I’ll ask if he can see you when he’s done.”
“I hope that’s not too long. I came from Maine this morning and hope to get back tonight. We feel some urgency to solve this case.”
“I understand. Please have a seat.”
Branch sat on the creaking leather sofa and glanced around. Everything spoke of a prosperous small-town practice: besides the leather furniture, the receptionist’s desk was heavy mahogany, as were the doors to the three internal offices; hunting prints hung on the walls, and heavy dark red drapes framed a window that looked out on the river and Connecticut on the other shore. Business magazines covered the coffee table. He looked at his watch; one-fifteen.
At one-thirty, a red-faced, portly man in a gray pinstripe came out of the far right door, nodded at the receptionist and left. She gathered up Branch’s credentials and stepped through the door, opening it only wide enough to slip through. In a minute, she emerged, and a lean, balding man in a navy suit and rimless glasses came to the door. His mouth turned down, as if he was so used to giving bad news that the expression became permanent.
“Detective Branch? Please come in.”
Branch entered, shook the hand of Mason Lockhart, and took a seat across from another heavy desk. Law books covered one wall, a table piled with files and papers was against another; there were plants in the window. Branch explained his mission and his odd credentials. “So you can understand why we are interested in who Ms. Downey’s heir might be.”
Lockhart put his elbows on the desk and touched the tips of his fingers together. “Yes. The murderer should be brought to justice. However, I cannot believe that our client, Ms. Downey’s heir, could have had anything to do with it.”
“He—or she–may well be completely clear of any involvement. Yet she—“
“He,” Lockhart said. “I can tell you that much.”
“Thank you. As I was saying, this gentleman, however innocent, may have information that may lead us to the killer.”
“Such as?”
Branch shrugged. “He may be able to point to someone we don’t yet know of. Maybe some unstable acquaintance. Someone we could place in the area at the time of the murder.”
“Perhaps. I’m afraid that I am constrained by the attorney-client privilege, and cannot, at this time, give you his name.”
“Could you call him and explain the situation and get a waiver in this case? If we are to catch and prosecute this person, we mustn’t let the trail get much colder.”
“I’m sorry, but I talked to our client earlier today, and he explicitly ordered me not to reveal his name to anyone until all the affairs of the estate were settled.”
“And when would that be?”
“Maybe two months. It’s a complex estate.” His mouth drooped a degree further. “Our client hates any publicity or notoriety.”
“Could you suggest to him that obstructing justice might trump attorney-client privilege?”
“That would be a matter for the courts.”
Branch rose. “Then I’d better see if I can’t get a court order. I’m in a bit of a hurry.” He put one of his cards on the desk and retrieved his credentials. “Please call me if he changes his mind. If you explain my interest and he still refuses, you might tell him that I would find that suspicious behavior. Thank you for your time.”
Lockhart did not appear to be about to speak, so Branch left.
As he passed the receptionist, he considered asking her where the civil courts might be. Then he saw her stony gaze at her logbook and decided against it.
It didn’t take him long to find out where the court offices were, however. He didn’t mind asking for directions.
He entered the building and consulted the directory. Four civil judges were listed, and they seemed to be on the same floor in neighboring offices. Good, he thought, if one’s not in, I can just go next door.
As it happened, the four judges were served by a common receptionist, this one a welcome contrast to the one at Lockhart and Leonard. She was young, thirties, a little plump, with a round face that smiled easily, and long brown hair.
“Are any of the judges in?” Branch asked, showing his Houston shield. He could show more if he had to, but maybe he could avoid the long explanation.
“Judge Benjamin is in, but he’s with someone. Can you wait?”
“Not long. Any of the civil judges would do. I need a court order for a murder investigation.”
“Judge Benjamin is the only judge scheduled to be in this afternoon. He shouldn’t be long. What’s the murder?”
“A lady from Weekapaug was killed up in Maine. Her lawyers won’t give me the name of her heir, so I need the court order.”
“Wow.” Her eyes widened. “Let me see how he’s doing.” She got up, leaned forward, and whispered, “It’s just his golf partner.” She went to the judge’s door, knocked once, and went in. She soon came back, followed by a man in a corduroy jacket and slacks, no tie, who was laughing.
“It’s a good thing you rescued me, Susie,” he said to the receptionist. “I’ve heard that tale three times now.” He nodded at Branch and left, and Susie waved him in.
Judge Benjamin was younger than he expected, maybe early forties, with dark curly hair and some five-o’clock shadow. He was smiling as he shook Branch’s hand and invited him to sit.
Branch explained his errand, and his smile faded. By the end of Branch’s explanation, he was shaking his head.
“I could give you the court order,” he said, “but if they’re determined to hold out, they can appeal it upstairs. How long have you got?”
“I’m trying to get back to Maine tonight, and I’d like to have a name.”
“How about three months? The appeals could take that long. If I wrote the order and they did appeal, as I’m pretty sure they would—Mason Lockhart is a bulldog—the fact that it was on appeal could block any other attempt you might make. My advice is to stay out of the courts.”
“This is a murder investigation. Doesn’t that carry any weight?”
“Sure. But your victim isn’t going anywhere.”
“The murderer might.”
“True. I’m just telling you what might happen.”
Branch was discouraged. He had had similar frustrations in Houston, but he had always hoped common sense might work. “What would you advise me to do?”
“Try to appeal to some member of the family. Maybe someone who isn’t going to get the gravy but who knows who is.” He smiled and winked. “This is ex parte. Please don’t quote me.”
“Don’t worry. And thanks.”
Branch returned to his car and shuffled his faxes. Amy Jane Bracken lived in Westerly, in a place called Overlook Pines. He found the address on his map and set out. Overlook Pines turned out to be a nursing home.
At the desk, a nurse in white heard his request and saw his credentials. To Branch’s consternation, she said, “I’m afraid our Miss Amy is not up to seeing visitors.”
“I wouldn’t tire her; I just have a few questions—actually, just one question.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think you could get an answer you could use. She’s pretty far gone into Alzheimer’s.”
Branch swore to himself. “I’d still like to talk to her. Just a few minutes.”
The nurse frowned. “If you insist. But just for a minute. And I’ve warned you what to expect.”
She led Branch down a hall to an open door. An old woman with wispy white hair was strapped in a wheelchair and bent over, dozing. She was skeletal and at least eighty, Branch thought.
The nurse put her hand on the shoulder of the old woman, and spoke loudly. “Miss Amy, wake up, sweetheart. You have a visitor.”
The old woman looked up with bleary eyes and open mouth, glancing from the nurse to Branch. “Who’re you?” she asked Branch.
“I’m Aldo Branch, Miss Bracken.”
“You look like Billy.”
The nurse spoke softly to Branch. “I’ve got to get back to the desk. You’re on your own.”
Branch said to Miss Bracken, “I just want to check your memory, if you don’t mind.”
“I’ve got a good memory. I remember the time when you were a baby, Billy.”
“That’s good. You remember your cousin Harriet?”
She made a face. “We never liked Harriet.”
“Do you remember the time with all the lawyers and the trial about Harriet’s father’s will?”
“Never liked Harriet. You didn’t either.”
“Do you remember who would inherit Harriet’s money?”
“Not those Downeys.” She jerked her head up and smiled with triumph. “One of us will get that money.” She looked sharply at Branch. “Is it you, Billy? I hope so. One of us. Not any of those Downeys. They have bad blood.”
Branch wondered how reliable this memory was. It could just be wishfulness. “It wasn’t me. Who do you think it could be?”
“Be what?”
“Be Harriet’s heir.”
She smirked bitterly. “She can’t have an heir.” She leaned forward and whispered. “She wouldn’t marry. Didn’t like men”
“Who do you imagine might inherit Harriet’s money?”
“I wish it was you, Billy. At least it won’t be a Downey.”
Branch realized that was all he was going to get. He started to rise, but she grabbed his arm.
“Mama is just down the hall, Billy. Are you going to see her?”
“Maybe later.”
“Oh go today. I saw her yesterday and she asked about you. She would be pleased to see you.”
“Ok, maybe I will.” He gently worked himself free. “You be good now.”
“Come again, Billy.”
Back in his car, he consulted the faxes. There was one more relative in Westerly, William John Bracken. Maybe that was Billy. He’d have time for one more interview before he started back.
He stopped himself and looked out through his windshield at the woods beyond the nursing home driveway. The rain had stopped, but the clouds looked as if it could start again. Why did he set this limit on himself? Was he determined to get back just in the hope Esme would come to his bed? That would be stupid. Here I am, he thought, with the possibility of learning something, maybe something that would prevent a miscarriage of justice, and I want to get back to someone who, on the whole, I don’t really like that much. He looked at his watch—three o’clock. He’d go talk to Billy and see where he stood. If he chose, he could find a motel and buy a toothbrush and razor.

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

July 18, 2010

Chapter 14.

Branch got up early and was on the road before sunup. It was cloudy and a slight drizzle was falling. He did not speak to Esme before he left. He did leave a message at the sheriff’s office to call his cell whenever the DNA test results came through. He was by now convinced that Daphne’s endpin was the murder weapon, though he realized that it was only because the conjecture had settled in his mind. He was not sure what he would do if the results were negative. Revisit Randy LaMotte? He was pretty sure there would be no viable fingerprints on the endpin besides Daphne’s, but he hoped that the lab might find some useful evidence. Maybe the hair and fabric that he collected from Harriet’s room could be used to confirm a suspicion. If he could find a suspicious person to test.
This trip, he realized, was a rather desperate attempt to follow the money before the trail got cold. If there were some connection between Harriet’s heir and anyone at the Music Party, or anyone who could be found in the area of Puffin Bay, he would at least have a motive.
He had neglected to bring his own music from Houston for the rental car, and had to make do by switching from one radio station to another. Boston’s WGBH had a good strong signal, and good music. But in other areas, either the Public Radio had switched to talk, or the selections were too shopworn for his taste—he thought that he could be happy if he never heard Ravel’s “Bolero” again.
The solitary drive gave him time to think through several issues: the case, of course, and what he might find or not find, and what he would do with his findings. What if he identified the heir as a member of the Music Party or someone closely related to a member? How would he find any confirming evidence?
The other topic of his thoughts was Esme. He should be more sympathetic to her situation, he told himself, pulled in one direction by her husband, and in another by him. But was he pulling her anywhere except to bed? Or maybe to the piano?
He had not seriously considered the possibility of a longer-term relationship with Esme. That would involve her divorce, her moving from what he was sure was a comfortable life in Connecticut to a much lower status life in steamy old Houston. Would she do it? And could he manage her self-described “high maintenance”? His sense of what would be the right thing to do led him to think that he ought to at least offer her the option. But his own feelings toward Esme were qualified in a way that was never the case with his wife, or Allegra, or Celia. He wondered if she would tire of him and his material limitations and leave him in a less diplomatic and more painful way than his wife or Allegra had. There were things about Esme that he really didn’t like, things that his conversation with Jill had made him more conscious of. She was selfish, materialistic, moody, snobbish. But was he just pissed off because she didn’t want sex last night?
The rain stopped, but it remained cloudy as he navigated the congested area around Boston and continued along I-95 and bypased Providence on I-295. Something he found in Weekapaug or Westerly might demand a stop in Providence later, but he pressed on toward Weekapaug, leaving the interstate at Canonchet and going south on route 91, a slow two-lane. A few miles outside of Weekapaug, his cell phone chimed.
“Guv’nah, Bacon here. Got the lab report. Those dabs of blood were from Ms. Downey.”
“So we have a murder weapon. Just need a suspect.”
“We’ve got one, whether you like it or not.”
“I’d like it fine if we had a motive.”
“Rage?”
“Maybe, but that’s what I doubt. Anyway, I’ll follow the money as far as I can. Did the lab find any fingerprints?”
“Just Ms. Kennedy’s and some smears.”
“I wish they could get enough DNA from smears. Skin oil should have some, wouldn’t you think?”
“DNA is outta my league, much less finding any in skin oil.”
“Well, thanks for the call, and let me know if anything happens while I’m gone.”
Branch stopped at a filling station that had a store and snack bar. He filled his tank, and got a paper cup of mediocre coffee and a danish. He bought a more detailed map of the area, and drove into Weekapaug.
Like Newport, Weekapaug was a seaside resort that had been populated by old money that had been made before the income tax. The beachfront was lined with enormous old houses, some of which were kept up by Wall Street billionaires, and some of which were in genteel decline. The Pond View Racquet Club, from the road, looked prosperous and exclusive, and Harriet’s house nearby was one of the better maintained. There was no sign of life. Branch parked and rang the doorbell. No answer. He looked through the glass in the door and saw a lot of polished wood, uncomfortable-looking furniture, dark portraits, and a broad stairwell. He walked around back and found the guest cottage where Sharon lived. Nobody answered his knock, not that he expected anyone to, since Sharon was in Puffin Bay. A peek in the window revealed a more modern and comfortable-looking room, with an upright piano and several bookshelves. He hoped Sharon wouldn’t have to leave.
He surveyed the garden, maintained no doubt by Latino immigrants. The main house had a long row of windows overlooking the garden. Branch mounted the deck that ran along under the windows and looked in. This space was more inviting: a conservatory, with plants and wicker furniture with thick cushions.
He didn’t know what, if anything, he expected to find at the place where Harriet and Sharon lived, but he felt a bit closer to them. He pondered his next step. Should he try to get the local police to let him into the house to see if he could find any illuminating papers? Harriet probably deposited any interesting papers with her lawyers. Should he go on to Westerly and see what he could get out of the lawyers? Returning to his car, he consulted his sheaf of faxes, and then his map. Maybe he’d try cousin Mary Margaret Spielmann.
The street was considerably less grand than Harriet’s, but Mrs. Spielmann’s house was a neat and well-kept cape with weathered cedar shingles. The woman who answered Branch’s ring must have been about sixty, but looked younger: she was slim, erect, her short hair only touched with gray, and looked at Branch with penetrating intelligence. She wore a black turtleneck and gray slacks.
Branch pulled out his Houston and Puffin Bay identifications and held them out. “Mrs. Spielmann?”
“Yes?”
“I’m Aldo Branch, a police detective sergeant. I’m sure you have learned about the death of your cousin, Harriet Downey.”
“Yes.” She seemed more curious than concerned, Branch thought.
“I have a few questions, if you can spare me the time.”
She didn’t answer right away, for she was looking closely at Branch’s credentials. “Which are you, a detective from Houston, or a deputy sheriff from Maine?”
“Both. I’ll be glad to explain. May I come in?”
She frowned, but stepped aside. “I guess. In there.” She nodded toward the living room, a well-lit space that, like Sharon’s, had a piano and lots of books. She gestured to a sofa; she sat in a straight chair opposite, and Branch had to look up to her.
“I’ve been on vacation, attending a music camp in Puffin Bay. I’m an amateur violist. But since I’m a homicide detective, the local sheriff deputized me to help him with the murder of your cousin. I have a letter from the sheriff as well as the credentials. Would you like to see it?”
“If you don’t mind.”
Branch took the letter from his jacket pocket and handed it to her. She read it and handed it back.
“So you play viola. I believe Harriet also played viola.”
“Yes.”
“I was not close to Harriet. Even though we live in the same town, I probably haven’t seen her in four or five years. But I’ll help you if I can.”
“Thank you. The sheriff and I would like to find out who stands to inherit Ms. Downey’s estate. We have had difficulty doing that. Apparently there was a lawsuit some years ago and the settlement was sealed. Can you tell me anything about that?”
Mrs. Spielmann pursed her lips. “I was not involved in that suit, and I was not close to any of the family that pursued it. I’ll tell you what I’ve heard.”
“Fine.”
She relaxed a little. “It can take a while. I have some fresh coffee in a thermos. Would you like some?”
“I’d be grateful. I’ve been on the road since early this morning.”
She left the room and returned with a tray with mugs, sugar, milk, and a thermos.
“Just black, please,” Branch said.
She poured the coffee and dosed hers with milk and sugar. She took a sip, leaned back, and began. “I suppose you’ve learned that Harriet was a lesbian. Harriet made the mistake of telling some members of the family about her—inclination in very clear terms. She was in college then, a bit of a rebel, and concerned mainly with herself. Her father had died by then, and she was due to inherit a very large estate when she turned twenty-one. Her uncles were offended that so much of the family fortune would pass to one they considered a—an immoral person, a degenerate. So they brought suit to try to break the will. Harriet fought back, but given the attitude of the times, every adult in the family sided with the uncles, and the judges probably shared their opinion. But the will was pretty explicit; Harriet’s father had a good lawyer who made it very tight.”
Mrs. Spielmann gave a small smile and drank some coffee. Branch was listening carefully, but he noticed with gratitude that the coffee was much better than his first cup at the gas station.
She continued. “The uncles realized that they probably couldn’t break the will, but they could threaten and intimidate. They were good at that. Anyway, they forced Harriet to a settlement. I don’t really know what the settlement involved, but I gather that Harriet got most of her inheritance, and that it would pass back to the family on her death.”
“Excuse me,” Branch broke in. “To the family in general, to be distributed?”
“I’m not sure. But I understood that it would go to one of the younger cousins. The uncle who was the father of that cousin—and I’m not sure which uncle it was–seems to have made various deals with the other uncles, gave properties, and so on, so that the estate would go to that cousin. Oh, and I heard that most of the properties that made up the estate couldn’t be sold while Harriet was alive, so that there would be something left. Harriet couldn’t spend it all.”
“She seemed pretty well off; she was generous toward some people and causes.”
“Yes. I suppose the stocks in the estate split, or something, for Harriet always seemed to have a good income. Of course she didn’t have to buy a house or send a kid to college.”
Branch hesitated, but he knew he must ask the crucial question. “Can you tell me the name of the cousin who will inherit Harriet’s estate?”
“No, not really. I do know that it is not I.” She looked at Branch and raised an eyebrow. “You are thinking the heir might have been involved in the murder. That’s understandable. I could make a guess, but I might be wrong, and that would be a lot of trouble for the cousin.”
They drank their coffee in silence for a while. “I guess I’ll have to go to Westerly and ask the lawyers.”
“That would probably get you nowhere without a court order—lawyer-client privilege, you know.”
“Mrs. Spielmann, I take it you are a widow.”
“Yes. My husband died in 2001.”
“Sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you. He was a good man.”
“Did your family approve of your marriage?”
She looked away and sighed. “No.”
“So you have some understanding of Harriet’s situation.”
“I suppose so. At the time I thought our situations were entirely different. My husband was a good man, hard working, responsible, with more ethics than my uncles. I thought their anti-Semitism was primitive. We had just had a war against the Nazis, for goodness’sake. But I guess I shared some their prejudices against homosexuals.”
“And now?”
“Times change. People change too, if they can. I’ve come to know several gay people, and as long as I don’t think too explicitly about what they do in private, I get along with them just fine; I admire some of them very much. I think they should have rights and not be discriminated against.”
Branch nodded and drained his mug. “Harriet, as you may know, was a difficult person. She was not a very good musician, and she irritated people. But she was generous to her partner and to various worthy organizations, like the Camden Quartet. Whoever murdered her should not get away with it.”
“I agree.”
“Do you think it all possible that you could find out from any of your family who the heir is?”
“As you may have gathered, I’m not close to my cousins and surviving uncles and aunts. But I’ll see what I can do.” She smiled, wanly, Branch thought.
“That would be a great help. Here’s my card. That’s my cell phone number. When I go back to Maine, I’ll be at the Puffin Inn in Puffin Bay. Here’s that number.” He wrote on the back of the card. “Thank you for your help and for the great coffee.” He stood.
“Good luck. What will you do now?”
He glanced at his watch. “Guess I’ll go to Westerly and do what I can. The sooner we get a good suspect the better.”
“Will any heir be a suspect?”
“Not necessarily. Only if he or she, or someone acting for him or her, was somewhere near the inn when Harriet was killed.”
“That might be tough to prove.”
“Exactly. We have to try every possible angle.”
She rose and extended her hand. “Again, good luck.”

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

July 11, 2010

Chapter 13.

Branch was dawdling over coffee after dinner Sunday evening when his cell phone rang. It was Chat. “Hang on,” he said to Chat, and then to his dinner companions, “Excuse me please.” He took the phone into the furthest bay window alcove. “Ok, what you got?”
“I got a lot of family names for your victim. Still can’t figure out the heir.”
“Tell me.” Branch pulled out a small notebook and pencil.
“The Downeys made a lot of money in textiles before the business went south. Literally. Then it went to Asia. They were lucky or smart—they invested in a lot of other stuff, and the money piled up. Harriet’s parents had a bunch of siblings, so she had a lot of aunts and uncles and cousins. Some of these got divorced and remarried. It gets pretty complicated.”
“What are some names of family members now living?”
“Here’s what I’ve got. Cousins on her mother’s side: four men named Bracken, William John, George Howard, Thomas Edward; two women named Bracken, Ellen Gail and Amy Jane; three with married names, Mary Rose Sanders, Eleanor Jane Chillingworth, and Frances Rose Folsom.”
“Must have been a grandma named Rose.”
“On the father’s side, two men named Downey, James John and Edgar March; one woman named Downey—your Harriet—and one woman named Mary Margaret Spielmann.”
“I bet Mrs. Spielmann caught hell from that crowd,” Branch said.
“If she’d married a Chatahoochee Jackson, bet they would have dropped dead.”
“You got addresses for any of these folks?”
“Yep. Why don’t I just fax them to you? I got the number from that fax you sent me.”
“Sure. Anything else?”
“The husband of one of your folks, that Howard Pilkington? He’s in trouble with the SEC again.”
“Yeah, I saw an item in the Times about that. Any background on him?”
“A lot. Did you check the Wall Street Journal?”
“I didn’t see it. Either it sold out, or there’s not much call for it off-season in Puffin Bay.”
“I’ll fax that too. Pretty interesting.”
“I’d like to read it tonight before I go off to Rhode Island in the morning.”
“I’ll start now.”
“Many thanks, Chat. I’ll owe you.”
“You right about that.”
On the way to the office, Branch saw Margo. “I may be late to quartets. Can you start with a trio?”
“Sure. Breaking news?”
“I wish. I’ve just got to collect a bunch of faxes.”
Margo looked at him in a way that Branch would have liked to follow up if he hadn’t been preoccupied. She said, “I’ve really gotten used to the texture your viola adds to the usual piano trio. I miss it when it’s just the trio. So hurry up.”
Jill was behind the desk, going over a pile of receipts. Branch said, “I hope you don’t mind; my partner in Houston is faxing me some stuff.”
She looked up, but didn’t attempt her usual smile. “I hope the stuff will solve your case. I’m glad the Party is staying on, but the longer this case goes on, the worse it will be for us.”
“Everybody wants this over,” Branch said, “but we’ve got to be sure we get the right person.”
Jill leaned back and crossed her arms. “There’s a rumor that Daphne is a suspect.”
Branch shook his head, marveling at the power of rumor—like water, it will penetrate any crack. Could it have been Daphne’s loss of her endpin that set it off? He decided to risk telling Jill what he thought. “Jill, I’ll tell you something if you swear not to spread it. Daphne is a suspect, but I have serious doubts that she did it. The only reason she is a suspect is that we have no one better.”
“So Randy is ok?”
“For now, unless something turns up.”
“I’m glad, since I sort of fingered him. By the way, Daphne’s been here several years. I don’t get to know all the music guests, but I have had some chats with Daphne, and my instinct tells me she’s not guilty. I know she has a temper, but I’ve never known her to be the least bit violent.”
“Anybody here your instinct has doubts about?” Branch knew he had asked this before, but he had learned that repeated questions sometimes yield different answers.
Jill shook her head. “Just because I don’t particularly like someone shouldn’t make you suspect them.”
“Forget anything about suspects for a moment. Who don’t you particularly like?”
“I just hate to say.” She twisted her hands together.
“Just between you and me. Sheila? Sharon? Myron? Asa?”
“No, none of them.”
“Margo?”
“No, I like Margo a lot.”
“Esme?”
Jill hesitated. “I don’t know anything bad about her, but she seems a bit snobbish. I’m sorry.” She looked up earnestly, then looked at her hands. “I’ve heard that you and she are—close.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t say anything. And I appreciate your honesty.”
Just then the fax machine buzzed and began spitting out paper. “Here comes my stuff,” Branch said. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just sit over here and read some of it as it comes in.”
“Sure. I’ll just go on with my work.”
Branch picked up the sheets from the machine’s in-basket and took them to a chair across from the counter. The names and addresses of the Downeys and Brackens came first. A few were still in Rhode Island, some in Westerly, and one, Mary Margaret Spielmann, was in Weekapaug. Could she have had any contact with Harriet? Others were scattered about, some in Boston, some in New York, some in Los Angeles, some in Palm Beach. Maybe he could get something interesting from the Rhode Island members and from the lawyers in Westerly.
When the fax finished, Branch thanked Jill and took his pile of papers back to his room, fetched his viola, and joined the trio to make up the quartet. They played the Beethoven, an early work originally written for piano and winds, but still engaging for piano and strings. Branch told the group that his part sounded like it was based on the French horn part. “I always have the urge to empty my spit valve after playing this—if I had a spit valve.”
Afterwards, Esme seemed quiet and distracted. Branch seemed to have a hard time getting her attention in bed. Finally, he asked what was wrong.
“Oh, Howard called. He really wants me to come home.”
“Is he worried about a killer on the loose?”
“I don’t think it’s that. He just wants me home, he says.”
“Does he think you’re having too much fun?”
“Maybe. I wonder if the sheriff will let me go.”
“You can ask him. I don’t imagine he’ll try to keep the whole group here beyond the Music Party dates. Do you want to go?”
She writhed as if her back itched; Branch found this sexy. “Oh, I don’t know,” she almost wailed.
“Let me persuade you,” he said and caressed her breast.
She stopped his hand and held it. “I’m sorry. I guess thinking about Howard put me off. I think I’d better just go.” She sat up.
“We don’t have much more time,” Branch protested. “A few more days and it’ll be a long time before we see each other again.” If ever, he thought. Did he want to see her again? He loved her body and he loved her music. Did he love her? Was he getting attached?
She stood and put on her robe. “I’ll make it up to you tomorrow night.”
“I won’t be around tomorrow, but I should be back by tomorrow night.” He grinned. “So be prepared.”
She turned and looked at him, eyebrows raised. “Oh? Where are you going?”
“I’m going down to Rhode Island to see if I can find out more about Harriet’s family.”
Her surprise took on a nervous edge. “What—what about our music?”
She’ll miss the music? “I’ll be sorry to miss it, but there are some things I need to clear up.”
She sat back down on the side of the bed, letting her robe fall open. “Let me go with you.” Her voice deepened and her eyelids narrowed. “We can check into a motel and have a real orgy. I feel inhibited around all these people we know.”
“Tempting. But I’d better ask for a rain check.”
She straightened and pulled her robe together, and her voice chilled. “The ball park may not be open again.”
“I’m sorry, but I really have to work tomorrow.”
She stood and raised her chin. “If you change your mind, let me know before breakfast. If not, I may see you tomorrow night, or I may not.” She swept out, leaving a conflicted and horny Branch.
As a distraction, Branch tried to read more of the faxes Chat had sent, but his mind kept bouncing off the page and returning to Esme. Finally he gave up and resolved to make an early start in the morning.

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

July 4, 2010

Chapter 12.

The piano quartet rehearsal went well. Branch helped Daphne improvise a temporary endpin for her cello out of a plastic pen, and Daphne did do a beautiful job with the solo in the third movement of the Brahms quartet in C minor. Branch and Margo meshed nicely in their duet passages, and Esme played with restraint.
“We’ll knock ‘em cold in master class tomorrow,” Margo said. “We’ll have the morning to polish the finale.”
Even Daphne was in good spirits. “It feels good to get into the flow of a good piece like this. I almost forgot I have a murder rap hanging over me.”
“Not for long you won’t,” Margo said. “Right, Aldo?”
“Keep hope alive,” Aldo said.
Later, Branch and Esme carried the enthusiasm of music over into their lovemaking. As they entwined afterward, Branch said, “Let me ask you something. I found a couple of sticky notes in Harriet’s room. They were signed ‘E.’ Could that have been you?”
Esme turned a puzzled look toward Branch. “I don’t know. What did they say?”
“One said ‘We have to talk.’ And the other just said ‘Please.’”
“Oh, that was me. I remember now. I wanted to help Harriet with her playing. I thought if we played some passages with her and the piano doubling it would help with her intonation. She wasn’t interested. The second note was me begging. She was so hard to play with, and she irritated so many people. Yet she was important to the Camdens and to the Music Party.”
“Forgive me if I sounded at all suspicious. I thought it might be something like that.”
“No problem. You have to check everything out.”
“Yeah, especially anything the sheriff missed.”
The next morning, Branch checked for messages. Nothing. The piano quartet assembled after breakfast and went over the finale of the Brahms. At the master class, they did well, and the members of the Camden Quartet praised them. The only thing that marred their performance was that the improvised endpin broke during the finale, for Daphne had become absorbed in the music and leaned into her cello too heavily. She recovered quickly and finished the movement squeezing the cello between her knees.
“I couldn’t do that for long,” she said afterward. “I guess the guys who played before the endpin was invented also rode horses a lot, which may have helped.”
“Maybe your tai chi helped you then,” Branch said.
They sat and listened to the other groups perform. Sharon had recovered enough to play in a string quartet that did the Haydn “Lark” quartet. Branch sought her out after the master class. Just a few questions, he said. They retired to one of the quiet alcoves off the lobby, where they could see the musicians gathering for lunch.
“So what are you going to do now?” Branch asked.
“I really don’t know. I have a small retirement and Social Security, so I’ll get by. I’ll probably have to find a new place to live. I’ve been living in Harriet’s guest cottage.”
“Don’t you know Harriet’s heir? He or she might let you stay on.”
“I’m not too proud to ask, but the thing is, I don’t know who to ask.”
“Oh?”
“Yes. There was this big lawsuit with Harriet’s family. There was a settlement, but I don’t know the details. A cousin was supposed to inherit her estate unless she had a child.” She smiled wryly. “Of course she didn’t. She was so estranged from her family that I never met any of them or even learned who they are. She hated talking about them. I guess I’ll find out when they kick me out. Or maybe I’ll just deal with the lawyers and never know any of the family.”
“Who were Harriet’s lawyers?”
“An old firm in Westerly, Lockhart and Leonard.”
“I guess you haven’t heard from them.”
“No, and I don’t expect to. Harriet was generous to me when she was alive, but she was clear that the settlement tied up her estate, and she had no say in any inheritance. So I expect nothing.”
“Can you think of anyone who gains by Harriet’s death?”
“The heir, whoever he is. Everybody else loses, as far as I can tell. The Camden Quartet, the Music Party, and several charities Harriet liked—all lose.”
Asa, Myron, Sheila, Margo, and Esme had lined up at the buffet. “Let’s get some lunch,” Branch said, rising. “Oh, one more thing. Did anyone approach Harriet—forgive me if this is indelicate—murder is indelicate—did anyone come on to Harriet sexually?”
Sharon had risen, and she looked at Branch, head tilted. “Not that I know of. And I think I would have known.”
“Right. I had to ask.” Branch looked down, looked up at the grandmotherly woman before him, and asked again: “Uh, has anyone offered to—to comfort you that way since Harriet’s death? Or even before?”
Sharon spoke unemphatically but unequivocally. “No.”
They joined the lunch crowd.
For the afternoon session, Branch was assigned to a quartet with Margo, Sharon, and Eric Larson. Before going off to the boathouse to meet with them, Branch went to his room and called Chat.
“Hey man, it’s Saturday. Can’t you give me some time off?”
“Chat, our window here is shortening. If we don’t have a reasonable suspect next week, these people will all go home, except the person who I think didn’t do it.”
“Ok, but you gotta pay overtime.”
“So what you got on anybody?”
“Not much. Like I said the other day, they’re mostly boring solid citizens. The husband of one of the ladies is kind of interesting, though.”
“Oh? How so?”
“This guy Howard Pilkington.”
Branch recognized the name of Esme’s husband.
“He’s one of these Wall Street paper shufflers. Trades stocks and bonds. Messes with hedge funds. Makes a lot of money, then loses a lot. Gets his name in the business pages for some smart deal, then he’s in trouble for insider trading, then wiggles out of it. No indictments or jail time so far. Did have to pay a fine last year for breaking some obscure rule.”
“Any sense that he’s short of cash?”
“Hard to tell. Lives in a posh area of Connecticut. Bought some art recently. The missus doesn’t work.”
“Yeah, I know her.” He wouldn’t tell Chat how well he knew her. “Keep an eye out for anything else on him. I mean anything. Anybody else capture your prurient interest?”
“Looks like another lady has shared an address with a lady in Boston for a long time. Daphne Kennedy. Know her?”
“Uh huh. She’s the suspect I don’t think did it.”
“Hmm. This lady, Joan Lakewood, her mother or aunt?”
“No. Probably partner.”
“As in girlfriend?”
“Yeah.”
“Ohh-kay. So I guess you’re not defending her out of gallant protectiveness. I mean, you ain’t puttin’ your shoes under her bed.”
“No, I ain’t.” Branch scratched his chin. He needed more about Harriet. “I know you said you couldn’t find out who would inherit the victim’s estate. But try to find out as many names of her family members as you can. The whole family tree, if possible. Check the genealogical sites. I guess you don’t have to back further than her grandparents.”
“Ok.” Chat sighed under the burden.
“And I’ll call you Monday morning. Looks like I’ll have to go down to Rhode Island then. But I’ll want to know as much as I can before I go.”
“There goes my Sunday.”
“Think of me—I’ll have to sacrifice a whole day to the pursuit of justice instead of playing music.”
“Yeah, my heart bleeds.”
Branch called Sheriff Bacon and told him of his plans. “Tell you what,” Bacon said, “I’ll make you a temporary deputy and write you a letter. That might help you with the Rhode Island crowd, since you’re so far from Texas.”
“That would be great. Thanks. I’ll pick it up this afternoon.” After his quartet session, Branch drove to the sheriff’s office, a white clapboard house off the square in Puffin Bay. The office proper was a pair of rooms in the front part of the house; the sheriff and his wife lived in the rest. The mix of official and domestic Branch found pleasing. While he was chatting with Bacon, his wife came in and Branch met her. She was round-cheeked, just a little plump, with graying brown hair escaping from a ponytail; she wore an apron over sweatpants and t-shirt, and had come to consult with the sheriff about dinner. She invited Branch, who was grateful, and tempted by the idea of a change from the inn’s fare; but he felt he had to keep an eye on the people at the inn and politely declined.
When Branch expressed his admiration for the house and office arrangement, the sheriff explained it as a perk of office. The county didn’t pay much, so the sheriff could rent out his family house while he lived at the office.
The sheriff had a Polaroid camera that made photo IDs; soon Branch had official deputy’s credentials plus a letter asking for cooperation from whomever Branch consulted.
He still had a few minutes before dinner, so he decided to take a short walk around the town. He read a notice on the t-shirt shop that listed shorter off-season hours. The restaurant, called “The Anchorage,” very much a local eatery catering to families and workers, also announced that it would close Sunday evening and Monday after lunch. The grocery seemed to be doing brisk business with local wives. He liked the feel of the familiarity the smallness imposed on the population. Everybody seemed to know everybody else. The people on the street greeted him with a brief “Evenin’.” Even though they didn’t know him. Or maybe they do, he considered; some of them may have heard that a cop from away was helping the sheriff, and figured that he was the one.
The evening continued without much change: dinner (roast pork, potatoes, apple sauce, salad, custard); piano quartet (the first Dvorak); and lovemaking with Esme.
Postcoital snuggling and conversation had lengthened recently. Tonight, Branch asked Esme, “Tell me more about your husband.”
“I’d rather think about you than him.”
“I’m just curious about what would make him neglect a woman like you.”
“You might too if you lived with me for ten years.”
“I doubt it. You’ve been married ten years?”
“Nine, actually. It seems longer.”
“Planning to stay?”
She shifted her position and looked away. “I suppose. As long as I get my little breaks. I usually get what I want.” She smiled at Branch and pinched his cheek. “I hate to admit it, but I guess some would call me ‘high maintenance.’ I like a nice house, nice clothes. Howard doesn’t make too many demands. I actually feel some affection for him. But his focus is on the big game, the big deal, the money score.”
“He does well, then.”
“Usually. I never know the details. I figure that when we go for a while without a trip or a dinner party, things are tight. If we have a party or I get some jewelry, things are ok.”
Once again as Esme was leaving, Branch heard her encounter little Elsie in the hall. Tonight she was much less indulgent than she had been before. “Elsie, you march right back to your room, get in your bed, and stay there.”
There was no music Sunday morning, in case anyone wanted to go to church. Some must have opted not to go, for Branch heard sounds of music from various rooms. Esme had not appeared by the time Branch finished breakfast. He reluctantly turned down an invitation from Margo and Daphne to play string trios. Branch wanted to walk into the village and get a stack of newspapers. He felt that he had been out of touch with the world, and he hoped that the local papers would run some crime story that would be helpful.
The morning was still chilly, so he pulled on a sweater before setting off. The restaurant in the square was full of Sunday brunch eaters; some were probably just back from mass, and others were on their way to church. The smell of bacon, sausage, and hash browns almost made him wish that he hadn’t already had breakfast. A counter near the register had stacks of papers, from the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Portland Maine Sunday Telegram, to the Lincoln County News and the York County Coast Star. He also picked up a copy of the Providence Journal, the only Rhode Island paper available.
Branch bought the lot and lugged them back to the inn. His room would be uncomfortable for reading newspapers, so he settled in the lobby with a fresh cup of coffee and began with the local weeklies. Lots of events—yard sales, Lions Club dances, church suppers—but no crimes of any interest. The Maine Sunday Telegram had a story about a stabbing that Branch cut out with his Swiss Army knife; the victim had been killed on a lobster boat with a fishing gaff. There were two other men on the boat, but they could not agree on who did the stabbing. No one seems to have been killed by an endpin or target arrow.
The Times was more interesting to Branch, for it caught him up on the continuing tragedy of Iraq and the incompetence of the Bush administration. The effects of Katrina were still being felt in New Orleans, the mention of which stirred in Branch a yearning for crawfish etouffé.
He checked the business pages to see if there might be a chance mention of Esme’s husband. He still had no clear idea of what he did. He found one small item: “Howard Pilkington, noted Wall Street figure, was reported to have been questioned by the Securities and Exchange Commission concerning insider trading.” If he was a noted figure, Branch thought, he should be able to find out more about him. Maybe Chat would have more.