Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

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.


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