Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

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.”

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