Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

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.”
“No, I like Margo a lot.”
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.


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